Court splits 4-4 on what it means to “use” a locomotive

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OPINION ANALYSIS
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The Supreme Court on Thursday issued its decision in LeDure v. Union Pacific Railroad Company. But the resolution was a single sentence stating that the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit was “affirmed by an equally divided Court.” As is customary in this situation, the Supreme Court revealed only that the vote was evenly split — not the identities of the justices on each side.

The split was made possible by Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s recusal. Before her appointment to the Supreme Court, Barrett had been on the 7th Circuit panel that decided the case, though she did not write the opinion.

LeDure asked the justices to interpret a key phrase of the Locomotive Inspection Act, a federal statute that requires railroads to regularly inspect and implement safety measures for their locomotives. The act applies only to locomotives that are in “use” (or “allowed to be used”) on the railroad’s line. Everyone agrees that locomotives are in use when they are in motion, or when temporarily stopped on the tracks amid an active journey. But appellate courts had divided over whether a locomotive parked at a railyard, and not ready to move imminently, qualifies as in “use.”

The answer had consequences for a tort suit brought by Bradley LeDure, a former Union Pacific engineer who fell on a locomotive while it was parked in an Illinois railyard. The 7th Circuit had held that the locomotive was not in “use” at the time of LeDure’s injury because it was stationary and needed to be serviced before continuing on its journey. As a result, Union Pacific was not strictly liable for LeDure’s injuries; LeDure needed to prove that the railroad’s negligence caused him to slip.

The Supreme Court’s deadlock resolves LeDure’s case but leaves the broader disagreement among the courts unsettled. Equally divided decisions are not precedential: The 7th Circuit’s decision is left in place but does not become the law of the land. Instead, another case would need to reach the Supreme Court — presumably one where no justice is recused — to conclusively decide whether stationary locomotives are in “use.”

While ties are uncommon, the court over the years has issued a number of equally divided decisions in cases where only eight justices are sitting, often due to a recusal. Perhaps most famously, following Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February 2016, the court issued an equally divided decision in United States v. Texas, leaving in place the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit’s decision blocking enforcement of the Obama administration’s deferred-action immigration policy. LeDure shows that even low-temperature cases presenting bread-and-butter issues of statutory interpretation can produce division. And the fact that the court issued its split decision now, as opposed to waiting until later in the term (as it did in Texas, when the decision was issued in late June), suggests that the justices saw no hope for a shift in votes in the coming months.



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