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ST. LOUIS SOUTHWESTERN RAILWAY CO. v. DICKERSON
ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS OF MISSOURI,
Decided March 4, 1985
Respondent railroad employee brought a personal injury action in a Missouri court against petitioner employer under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), alleging that a permanent disabling injury he received in a fall from a railroad car he was inspecting was the result of petitioner's negligence. Respondent introduced evidence that his future wage losses would be about $1 million, and petitioner requested that the judge instruct the jury that since respondent would have the use of any money awarded in a lump sum for loss of earnings in the future, the jury must determine the present value of the money awarded for such future loss. The judge refused to submit the instruction because such an instruction was not provided for in the Missouri Approved Instructions promulgated by the Missouri Supreme Court for use in FELA cases. The jury found for respondent, awarding $1 million in damages, and the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed.
As a general matter, FELA cases adjudicated in state courts are subject to state procedural rules, but the propriety of jury instructions concerning the measure of damages in such cases is an issue of "substance" to be determined by federal law. As a matter of federal law, a defendant in an FELA case is entitled to have the jury instructed that "when future payments or other pecuniary benefits are to be anticipated, the verdict should be made up on the basis of their present value only." Chesapeake & Ohio R. Co. v. Kelly, 241 U.S. 485, 491 . Thus, the instruction requested here should have been given.
Certiorari granted; 674 S. W. 2d 165, reversed.
In this case, the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld a trial court's refusal to instruct the jury in a Federal Employers' Liability Act case that its award to the plaintiff should reflect the present value of any future losses the plaintiff should sustain. Because such an instruction is required as a matter of federal law, we reverse. [470 U.S. 409, 410]
On December 11, 1978, respondent, a railroad policeman, was permanently disabled in a fall from a railroad car that he was inspecting for evidence of vandalism. Alleging that the fall was the result of petitioner's negligence, he brought suit under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), 35 Stat. 65, as amended, 45 U.S.C. 51 et seq., in the Circuit Court of the city of St. Louis. Respondent introduced evidence that his future wage losses resulting from his injuries would, over the course of his lifetime, amount to somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 million.
Petitioner requested that the judge submit to the jury the following instruction:
The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed. 674 S. W. 2d 165 (1984). Rejecting petitioner's contention that the failure to instruct the jury on present value was error, the court held that a present-value instruction was inappropriate as a matter of Missouri law. The court's ruling was in accord with two previous opinions of the Missouri Supreme Court holding that because the Missouri Approved Instructions do not call for a present-value instruction in FELA cases, such an instruction may not be given. Bair v. St. Louis-San Francisco R. Co., 647 S. W. 2d 507 (en banc), cert. denied sub nom. Burlington Northern Inc. v. Bair, 464 U.S. 830 (1983); Dunn v. St. Louis-San Francisco R. Co., 621 S. W. 2d 245 (1981) (en banc), cert. denied sub nom. Burlington Northern R. Co. v. Dunn, 454 U.S. 1145 (1982).
As a general matter, FELA cases adjudicated in state courts are subject to state procedural rules, but the substantive law governing them is federal. Although the Court's decisions in this area "point up the impossibility of laying down a precise rule to distinguish `substance' from `procedure,'" Brown v. Western R. Co. of Alabama, 338 U.S. 294, 296 (1949), it is settled that the propriety of jury instructions concerning the measure of damages in an FELA action is an issue of "substance" determined by federal law. Norfolk & Western R. Co. v. Liepelt, 444 U.S. 490, 493 (1980). Accordingly, petitioner's contention that it was entitled to a jury instruction on present value cannot be dismissed on the ground that such an instruction is not to be found in the Missouri Approved Instructions. Whether such an instruction should have been given is a federal question.
Not only is it a federal question, but it is also one to which existing law provides a clear answer. Nearly 70 years ago, this Court held that a defendant in an FELA case is entitled to have the jury instructed that "when future payments or other pecuniary benefits are to be anticipated, the verdict should be made up on the basis of their present value only." [470 U.S. 409, 412] Chesapeake & Ohio R. Co. v. Kelly, 241 U.S. 485, 491 (1916). The rationale for such an instruction is simple:
JUSTICE MARSHALL, dissenting.
I continue to object to deciding cases without granting to either party an opportunity to argue the merits by either brief or oral argument. I therefore dissent. [470 U.S. 409, 414]