Burlington Northern R. Co. v. Ford
504 U.S. 648 (1992)

Annotate this Case

OCTOBER TERM, 1991

Syllabus

BURLINGTON NORTHERN RAILROAD CO. v. FORD ET AL.

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF MONTANA No. 91-779. Argued April 20, 1992-Decided June 12, 1992

Respondents sued petitioner, their employer, under the Federal Employers' Liability Act in the state court in Yellowstone County, Montana. That court denied petitioner's motions to change venue to Hill County, where petitioner claimed to have its principal place of business in Montana. The State Supreme Court affirmed, ruling that Montana's venue rules-which permit a plaintiff to sue a corporation incorporated in that State only in the county of its principal place of business, but permit suit in any county against a corporation, like petitioner, that is incorporated elsewhere-do not work a discrimination violating the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.

Held: The distinction in treatment contained in Montana's venue rules does not offend the Equal Protection Clause. Those rules neither deprive petitioner of a fundamental right nor classify along suspect lines like race or religion, and are valid because they can be understood as rationally furthering a legitimate state interest: adjustment of the disparate interests of parties to a lawsuit in the place of trial. Montana could reasonably determine that only the convenience to a corporate defendant of litigating in the county of its home office outweighs a plaintiff's interest in suing in the county of his choice. Petitioner has not shown that the Montana venue rules' hinging on State of incorporation rather than domicile makes them so underinc1usive or overinc1usive as to be irrational. Besides, petitioner, being domiciled outside Montana, would not benefit from a rule turning on domicile, and therefore cannot complain of a rule hinging on State of incorporation. Power Manufacturing Co. v. Saunders, 274 U. S. 490, distinguished. Pp. 650-654.

250 Mont. 188, 819 P. 2d 169, affirmed.

SOUTER, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Betty Jo Christian argued the cause for petitioner. With her on the briefs were Charles G. Cole, Jerald S. Howe, Jr., Virginia L. White-Mahaffey, Edmund W Burke, and Richard v: Wicka.


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Joel 1. Klein argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief was Robert S. Fain, Jr. *

JUSTICE SOUTER delivered the opinion of the Court. Montana's venue rules permit a plaintiff to sue a corporation incorporated in that State only in the county of its principal place of business, but permit suit in any county against a corporation incorporated elsewhere. This case presents the question whether the distinction in treatment offends the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, U. S. Const., Arndt. 14, § 1. We hold that it does not.

Respondents William D. Ford and Thomas L. Johnson were employed by petitioner Burlington Northern Railroad Company, a corporation owing its existence to the laws of Delaware and having a principal place of business in Fort Worth, Texas. Ford and Johnson raised a claim under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), 35 Stat. 65, as amended, 45 U. S. C. §§ 51-60, and brought suit in the state trial court for Yellowstone County, Montana, alleging injuries sustained while working at Burlington's premises in Sheridan, Wyoming. In each case, Burlington moved to change venue to Hill County, Montana, where it claimed to have its principal place of business in that State. The trial court denied each motion, and Burlington brought interlocutory appeals.

*Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the Washington Legal Foundation by Daniel J. Popeo and Paul D. Kamenar; and for the Association of American Railroads by John H. Broadley, David W Ogden, and Robert W Blanchette.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the State of Montana et al. by Marc Racicot, Attorney General of Montana, and Elizabeth S. Baker, Assistant Attorney General, and by the Attorneys General for their respective States as follows: Tom Udall of New Mexico, Nicholas J. Spaeth of North Dakota, Mark Barnett of South Dakota, Dan Morales of Texas, and Joseph B. Meyer of Wyoming; and for the Montana Trial Lawyers Association by Alexander Blewett III and W William Leaphart.


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Full Text of Opinion

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