Monday, October 31, 2016

Koziara v. BNSF Railway: Proximate causation and why you shouldn't blame the Big Bang if Donald Trump is elected President next Tuesday

Judge Richard Posner's opinion in Koziara v. BNSF Railway Co., No. 16-1577 (7th Cir. Oct. 31, 2016), is a terrific primer on the difference between causation and proximate causation. A finding of legal liability generally requires that a plaintiff establish not merely causation but proximate causation. Essentially, what this boils down to is that not every cause is a proximate cause, and it's only the latter that we care about. 

In Koziara, the plaintiff filed an injury report after he was injured by a plank ejected by a front-end loader. While BNSF was investigating the injury report, an employee notified BNSF that the plaintiff might have been injured prior to the plank incident when he was removing railroad ties from railroad property. BNSF investigated this allegation and concluded that the plaintiff should be fired for stealing the railroad ties. The plaintiff sued BNSF alleging that it violated the Federal Railroad Safety Act by firing him in retaliation for filing an injury report.

The district court judge instructed the jury that the filing of the injury report had "initiated the events that led to [the plaintiff's] discipline, and therefore was a contributing factor to the adverse actions that he suffered." Rejecting this analysis, the Seventh Circuit concluded that the district court had erred in failing to distinguish between causation and proximate causation. Only proximate causes have legal consequences. Thus, the Seventh Circuit noted, if the plaintiff had never been born or had never been hired by BNSF, then he would not have been injured by a plank and filed the injury report. However, that did not mean that his being born or being hired by BNSF were legally cognizable causes of his being fired.

So the moral of the story is, don't blame the Big Bang if Donald Trump is elected President next Tuesday.

Although Koziara involves a retaliation claim under the Federal Railroad Safety Act, its principles should apply no less to retaliation claims brought under EEO laws, which also require plaintiffs to establish proximate causation. 

This blog reflects the views solely of its author. It is not intended, and should not be regarded, as legal advice on how to analyze any particular set of facts.