Hilton v. South Carolina Public Railways Comm'n
Annotate this Case
502 U.S. 197 (1991)
OCTOBER TERM, 1991
HILTON v. SOUTH CAROLINA PUBLIC RAILWAYS COMMISSION
CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF SOUTH CAROLINA No. 90-848. Argued October 8, 1991-Decided December 16, 1991
Respondent South Carolina Public Railways Commission, a state agency that is a common carrier engaged in interstate commerce by railroad, was sued in state court under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FE LA) by its employee, petitioner Hilton, who alleged that he was injured in the course of his employment as a result of the commission's negligence. In dismissing the complaint on the ground that FELA does not authorize a damages action against a state agency, even if suit is maintained in a state forum, the trial court acknowledged that in Parden v. Terminal Railway of Alabama Docks Dept., 377 U. S. 184, this Court interpreted FELA to permit such actions, but held that in effect Parden had been overruled by subsequent decisions of the Court. The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed.
Held: FELA creates a cause of action against a state-owned railroad, enforceable in state court. Pp.201-207.
(a) Absent sufficient, countervailing justifications for departing from precedent, the strong considerations favoring adherence to stare decisis in this case compel the Court to reaffirm Parden insofar as it held, 377 U. S., at 187-188, that when Congress used the phrase "[e]very common carrier by railroad" to describe the class of employers subject to FELA's terms, it intended to include state-owned railroads. Weight must be accorded to the continued acceptance of the Parden holding by Congress, which has had almost 30 years in which to take corrective action if it disagreed with that holding, but has chosen not to do so. Moreover, overruling Parden would require an extensive legislative response by the many States, including South Carolina, that have specifically excluded railroad workers from workers' compensation coverage on the assumption that FELA adequately protects those workers in the event of injuries caused by an employer's negligence, and would dislodge the settled rights and expectations of employees and employers who have been acting on that assumption. Overruling Parden would also throw into doubt this Court's decisions holding that the entire federal scheme of railroad regulation applies to state-owned railroads. Pp.201-203.
(b) Decisions subsequent to Parden do not require the Court to depart from stare decisis in this case. Welch v. Texas Dept. of Highways and Public Transportation, 483 U. S. 468, 478-which held that the
Jones Act, which incorporates FELA's remedial scheme, does not abrogate the States' Eleventh Amendment immunity from suit in federal court, ibid., but which explicitly reserved the question whether in that Act (or in FELA) Congress intended to create a cause of action against the States, id., at 476, n. 6 (plurality opinion); see also id., at 495 (WHITE, J., concurring)-cannot be characterized as having considered and rejected the aforementioned arguments for following stare decisis, since Welch neither addressed nor discussed the most vital consideration of today's decision: that to confer immunity from state-court suit would strip all FELA and Jones Act protection from state-employed workers. Further, the Welch holding cannot be treated as determinative of the issue here presented, since Welch's statement that Congress may abrogate the States' constitutionally secured immunity "only" by making its intention unmistakably clear in the statutory language, id., at 471, was made in the context of establishing a rule of constitutional law based on the Eleventh Amendment, which does not apply in state courts. Nor was Parden effectively overruled by Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U. S. 58, 65, which, in holding that a State is not a "person" suable under 42 U. S. C. § 1983, relied in part on the lack of any "clear statement" in the statute of a congressional intent to impose such liability. Will's "clear statement" rule is not a per se rule of constitutional law, but only an "ordinary rule of statutory construction," ibid. The issue in this case, as in Will, is a pure question of statutory construction, where the stare decisis doctrine is most compelling. Thus the clear statement inquiry need not be made here and the Court need not decide whether FELA satisfies that standard, for the rule in any event does not prevail over the stare decisis doctrine as applied to a longstanding statutory construction implicating important reliance interests. And when the clear statement rule is either overcome or inapplicable so that a federal statute does impose liability upon the States, the Supremacy Clause makes that statute the law in every State, fully enforceable in state courts. Pp. 203-207.
Reversed and remanded.
KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and WHITE, STEVENS, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., concurred in the judgment. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SCALIA, J., joined, post, p. 207. THOMAS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Robert J. Beckham argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioner.