Henry is a repairman who works for a railroad. One day, as a result of the railroad’s negligence, a boiler begins to overheat and Henry is called on to fix it. While working, Henry becomes uncomfortably hot and removes his coat. After finishing his work, he reaches for a thermos of coffee but accidentally spills it on his arm, causing severe burns. If Henry had been wearing his coat, it would have prevented him from being burned. Is the railroad liable for Henry’s injuries?
Under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), railroads are liable to their employees for injuries caused “in whole or in part” by the railroad’s negligence. Rather than establishing a workers’ compensation system, FELA requires railroad employees to sue through the traditional tort system to recover for workplace injuries but eliminates common law barriers such as assumption of risk that made it difficult for employee-plaintiffs to recover in common law courts. This means that employees hoping to recover for a workplace injury still have the burden of proving the traditional elements of a tort suit: duty, breach, causation, and damages. Henry might bring suit against the railroad to recover for his injuries, arguing that but for the fact that the overheating boiler caused him to remove his coat, he would not have been burned by the coffee. He would claim that the railroad’s negligent maintenance of the boiler caused his injury “in whole or in part.” A court applying common law proximate cause would likely reject this sort of claim. Proximate cause allows courts to cut off the chain of causation when an injury appears too attenuated, too unforeseeable, or too unnatural to justify holding the defendant liable.5 Without a limit, a negligent act could create virtually unlimited liability for a defendant through an endless chain of but-for causation. Imagine a defendant-employer negligently starts a fire in the morning. The firemen extinguish the fire by lunch, but not before the fire spreads to the sandwich shop next door. Because the defendant’s employees cannot eat lunch at the sandwich shop, they drive to a restaurant three miles down the road. On their way, the car breaks down and the employees get in a wreck and sustain severe injuries. But for the negligently created fire, the employees would not have been driving and would not have gotten into a wreck. The chain of causation is clear—one event leads to another, which leads to another—but imposing liability on the employer for the car wreck because of the negligently created fire seems absurd. Proximate cause allows courts to deny liability in cases involving such attenuated chains of causation.