Louisiana Defenses: Claim Preclusion Based on Regulatory Compliance
Written by Kristin Lausten
When defending against claims of negligence, defense counsel should explore the possibility of claim preclusion based on compliance with applicable governmental regulations. This argument has been successful in railroad negligence cases. Claim preclusion, of course, is a narrow defense that targets only some of the asserted bases for negligence. An example is the case of Lane v. RA Sims, Jr., Inc., 241 F. 3d 439 (5th Cir. 2001) in which the court held that a plaintiff’s excessive speed claim under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”), 45 U.S.C. §§ 51-60, was precluded when the train was traveling less than the speed allowed by applicable federal regulations promulgated pursuant to the Federal Railroad Safety Act, 49 U.S.C. §§ 20101-20153. Claim preclusion — sometimes called issue preclusion — is, of course, distinct from preemption, which can also be a defense in some cases. See CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Easterwood, 507 U.S. 658 (US Supreme Court 1993) (holding a state common law negligence excessive speed claim was preempted where train was traveling at less than the maximum speed established in the federal regulations).
Claim preclusion based on regulatory compliance might be a viable defense in highly regulated industries and under certain federal statutes. As discussed below, in general, regulatory compliance is a sword for the plaintiff. Failure to meet the standards set by the regulations can be strong evidence of the failure of due care. However, defense counsel should endeavor to turn regulatory compliance into a shield.
Louisiana Defenses: Legal Principles
As noted, in general, courts treat compliance with regulations as a bare minimum expectation that does not preclude the possibility that the defendant could have been even more careful. For example, see Doyle v. Volkswagenwerk Aktiengesellschaft, 481 S.E.2d 518 (Ga. Supreme Court 1997) in which the court held that compliance with federal automobile safety standards is merely “a factor” for the jury to consider in determining whether the automaker breached its duty of care in the design and manufacture of the automobile at issue.
However, where applicable, the defense bar is urged to challenge this traditional view. There is a growing body of case law and scholarly articles to support the challenge. With respect to railroad cases, the emerging rule flowing from cases like Lane is that when an injury comes about in a way that is contemplated and covered by regulations, then the railroad’s compliance with the regulations will shield it from liability. Essentially, the railroad did not breach its duty of care. An example is the case Kansas City Southern Ry. v. Nichols Construction Co., 574 F. Supp. 2d 590 (US Dist. ED Louisiana 2008).
In that case, the plaintiff was an employee of the railroad. While working, his train collided with a large truck that had become stuck in the tracks at a road crossing in St. Charles Parish. Upon impact, both locomotives derailed and the plaintiffs/employees were injured by being thrown about inside their respective cars. The plaintiffs filed claims under FELA arguing, among other things, that the railroad breached its duty to provide a safe working environment by not equipping its locomotives with seat belts, padding, and other safety features.
However, the District Court granted summary judgment and precluded those specific claims of negligence because the railroad had fully complied with regulations with respect to securely fastened seating. The court stated:
“It is difficult to conceive that a regulation requiring that cab seats be “securely mounted and braced” could be intended to provide anything other stability and security for the person sitting in those seats. Thus, if a railroad complies with [regulation] § 229.119(a) and an employee is injured in his seat during a collision, then the employee’s negligence claim could be precluded.”
The court held that the plaintiffs’ claims with respect to additional safety measures were, indeed, precluded.
By contrast, if there are no regulations “on point,” then a traditional negligence analysis is used. See e.g., Tufariello v. Long Island R. Co., 458 F.3d 80, 86 (2nd Cir.2006) (holding that a railroad employee could bring a negligence claim against his employer for hearing loss resulting from long-term exposure to train horns because no FRSA preclusion existed where the FRSA only prescribed minimum sound levels for warning devices on trains).
Louisiana Defense Law
Admittedly, railroad cases are their own unique category and courts may be reluctant to extend railroad-related caselaw to other areas. The public policy reasons are just as sound in other areas of the law. Regulatory compliance should be a shield protecting clients from liability.
Defending Louisiana Negligence Cases: Contact an Experienced Louisiana Defense Lawyer
If you want further information about defending Louisiana negligence claims and defeating claims on the basis of claim preclusion, an experienced Louisiana insurance defense lawyer can help you.
The author may be contacted at:
Kristin M. Lausten
This article is provided as an educational service for general informational purposes only. The material does not constitute legal advice or rendering of professional services.