BNSF Railroad Co. v. Tyrrell,
581 U.S. ___ (2017)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Based on alleged work-related injuries, Nelson, a North Dakota resident, and Tyrrell, the administrator of a South Dakota estate, brought Federal Employers’ Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. 51, suits against BNSF Railroad. Neither injury occurred in Montana. Neither incorporated nor headquartered there, BNSF maintains less than five percent of its workforce and about six percent of its total track mileage in Montana. The Montana Supreme Court held that Montana courts could exercise general personal jurisdiction over BNSF because the railroad “d[id] business” in the state within the meaning of 45 U.S.C. 56. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed. Section 56 does not address personal jurisdiction over railroads but is only a venue prescription. The Montana courts’ exercise of personal jurisdiction did not comport with the Due Process Clause. Only the propriety of general personal jurisdiction was at issue because neither plaintiff alleged injury from work in or related to Montana. A state court may exercise general jurisdiction over out-of-state corporations when their “affiliations with the State are so ‘continuous and systematic’ as to render them essentially at home in the forum State.” The “paradigm” forums in which a corporate defendant is “at home” are its place of incorporation and its principal place of business. In an “exceptional case,” a corporate defendant’s operations in another forum “may be so substantial and of such a nature as to render the corporation at home in that State,” but that constraint does not vary with the type of claim asserted or business enterprise sued.

Prior History
  • Syllabus  | 
  • Opinion (Ruth Bader Ginsburg)  | 
  • Opinion (Sonia Sotomayor)

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued.The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

BNSF RAILWAY CO. v. TYRRELL, special administrator for the ESTATE OF TYRRELL, DECEASED, et al.

certiorari to the supreme court of montana

No. 16–405. Argued April 25, 2017—Decided May 30, 2017

The Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), 45 U. S. C. §51 et seq., makes railroads liable in money damages to their employees for on-the-job injuries. Respondent Robert Nelson, a North Dakota resident, brought a FELA suit against petitioner BNSF Railway Company (BNSF) in a Montana state court, alleging that he had sustained injuries while working for BNSF. Respondent Kelli Tyrrell, appointed in South Dakota as the administrator of her husband Brent Tyrrell’s estate, also sued BNSF under FELA in a Montana state court, alleging that Brent had developed a fatal cancer from his exposure to carcinogenic chemicals while working for BNSF. Neither worker was injured in Montana. Neither incorporated nor headquartered there, BNSF maintains less than 5% of its work force and about 6% of its total track mileage in the State. Contending that it is not “at home” in Montana, as required for the exercise of general personal jurisdiction under Daimler AG v. Bauman, 571 U. S. ___, ___, BNSF moved to dismiss both suits. Its motion was granted in Nelson’s case and denied in Tyrrell’s. After consolidating the two cases, the Montana Supreme Court held that Montana courts could exercise general personal jurisdiction over BNSF because the railroad both “d[id] business” in the State within the meaning of 45 U. S. C. §56 and was “found within” the State within the compass of Mont. Rule Civ. Proc. 4(b)(1). The due process limits articulated in Daimler, the court added, did not control because Daimler did not involve a FELA claim or a railroad defendant.

Held:

1. Section 56 does not address personal jurisdiction over railroads. Pp. 4–9.

(a) Section 56’s first relevant sentence provides that “an action may be brought in a district court of the United States,” in, among other places, the district “in which the defendant shall be doing business at the time of commencing such action.” This Court has comprehended that sentence as a venue prescription, not as one governing personal jurisdiction. Baltimore & Ohio R. Co. v. Kepner, 314 U. S. 44 . Congress generally uses the expression, where suit “may be brought,” to indicate the federal districts in which venue is proper, see, e.g., 28 U. S. C. §1391(b), while it typically provides for the exercise of personal jurisdiction by authorizing service of process, see, e.g., 15 U. S. C. §22. Nelson and Tyrrell contend that the 1888 Judiciary Act provision that prompted §56’s enactment concerned both personal jurisdiction and venue, but this Court has long read that Judiciary Act provision to concern venue only, see, e.g., Green v. Chicago, B. & Q. R. Co., 205 U. S. 530 –533. Pp. 5–7.

(b) The second relevant sentence of §56—that “[t]he jurisdiction of the courts of the United States under this chapter shall be concurrent with that of the courts of the several States”—refers to concurrent subject-matter jurisdiction of state and federal courts over FELA actions. See Second Employers’ Liability Cases, 223 U. S. 1 –56. Congress added this clarification after the Connecticut Supreme Court held that Congress intended to confine FELA litigation to federal courts, and that state courts had no obligation to entertain FELA claims. Pp. 7–8.

(c) None of the cases featured by the Montana Supreme Court in reaching its contrary conclusion resolved a question of personal jurisdiction. Pope v. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co., 345 U. S. 379 ; Miles v. Illinois Central R. Co., 315 U. S. 698 ; Kepner, 314 U. S. 44 ; and Denver & Rio Grande Western R. Co. v. Terte, 284 U. S. 284 , distinguished. Moreover, all these cases, save Pope, were decided before this Court’s transformative decision on personal jurisdiction in International Shoe Co. v. Washington, 326 U. S. 310 . Pp. 8–9.

2. The Montana courts’ exercise of personal jurisdiction under Montana law does not comport with the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Only the propriety of general personal jurisdiction is at issue here because neither Nelson nor Tyrrell alleges injury from work in or related to Montana.

A state court may exercise general jurisdiction over out-of-state corporations when their “affiliations with the State are so ‘continuous and systematic’ as to render them essentially at home in the forum State.” Daimler, 571 U. S., at ___. The “paradigm” forums in which a corporate defendant is “at home” are the corporation’s place of incorporation and its principal place of business, e.g., id., at ___, but in an “exceptional case,” a corporate defendant’s operations in another forum “may be so substantial and of such a nature as to render the corporation at home in that State,” id., at ___, n. 19. Daimler involved no FELA claim or railroad defendant, but the due process constraint described there applies to all state-court assertions of general jurisdiction over nonresident defendants; that constraint does not vary with the type of claim asserted or business enterprise sued.

Here, BNSF is not incorporated or headquartered in Montana and its activity there is not “so substantial and of such a nature as to render the corporation at home in that State.” Ibid. Pp. 9–12.

383 Mont. 417, 373 P. 3d 1, reversed and remanded.

Ginsburg, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Thomas, Breyer, Alito, Kagan, and Gorsuch, JJ., joined. Sotomayor, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

Primary Holding

45 U.S.C. Section 56 addresses only venue and may not be used to establish personal jurisdiction over railroads in a way that circumvents traditional due process concerns.

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