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Langlois v. BNSF Railway Co.

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 1

May 20, 2019

KARL LANGLOIS, Respondent,
v.
BNSF RAILWAY COMPANY, a Delaware Corporation, Appellant.

          CHUN, J.

         A "remedial and humanitarian purpose" underlies the Federal Employer's Liability Act (FELA).[1] So too does a policy favoring uniformity in the Act's operation. Against this backdrop, we decide whether, given the particulars of this case, equitable tolling applies to FELA's limitations period.

         In 2012 and 2014, Karl Langlois suffered injuries while working for BNSF Railway Company in Washington State. Langlois, a Washington resident, filed suit against BNSF, a Delaware corporation, with its principal place of business in Texas. He did so in Oregon state court, claiming negligence under FELA.[2] BNSF moved to dismiss the case for lack of personal jurisdiction. The Oregon trial court denied the motion. Later, the Oregon Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court issued rulings under which it became clear that Oregon courts lacked personal jurisdiction over BNSF in Langlois's case.

         Langlois then filed an action in Washington with the same allegations. BNSF moved for summary judgment, arguing that FELA's three-year limitations period had expired. Langlois conceded that the period had expired, but argued for the court to apply equitable tolling. The trial court accepted his argument and denied the motion.

         Because the policy considerations underlying FELA support equitable tolling here and Langlois meets the diligence and extraordinary circumstance elements of the doctrine, we affirm.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Oregon Complaint

         On December 30, 2014, Langlois filed a FELA action against BNSF in Oregon state court. The complaint alleged negligence arising from two injuries Langlois suffered while working for BNSF in Washington. The injuries occurred on January 25, 2012 and February 24, 2014.

         BNSF moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction on April 10, 2015. It argued an Oregon court could not exercise general personal jurisdiction consistent with the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause because its contacts with Oregon did not render it "at home" in the state. Langlois opposed the motion, contending that section 56 of FELA[3] conferred personal jurisdiction over BNSF. On June 5, 2015, the Oregon trial court denied the motion to dismiss, determining BNSF's "uniquely long history of operations within the state" allowed general jurisdiction over it in accordance with the Due Process Clause.

         BNSF then petitioned the Oregon Supreme Court for an alternative writ of mandamus, claiming the trial court erred in denying its motion. The court denied the petition on August 6, 2015. BNSF then filed its answer to Langlois's complaint and the parties proceeded toward trial.

         On May 5, 2016, in a separate case, Barrett v. Union Pacific Railroad Co., the Oregon Supreme Court issued an alternative writ of mandamus to address the same issue raised by BNSF's earlier petition-whether, in a FELA case, an Oregon court could exercise general jurisdiction over a railroad in connection with out-of-state activities.[4] 359 Or. 526, 379 P.3d 521 (2016) (Barrett I). The trial court stayed Langlois's case pending resolution of the issue.

         On March 2, 2017, the Oregon Supreme Court issued its ruling in Barrett v. Union Pacific Railroad Co., 361 Or. 115, 390 P.3d 1031 (2017) (Barrett II). It determined that Oregon lacked personal jurisdiction under both section 56 and the Due Process Clause. With regard to section 56, the court acknowledged that the United States Supreme Court "recognized in Kepner[5] [that] the first sentence of section 56 does not confer personal jurisdiction over out-of-state corporate defendants but instead provides for expanded venue 'if there is jurisdiction."' Barrett II, 361 Or. at 128 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Baltimore & Ohio R.R. Co. v. Kepner, 314 U.S. 44, 51, 62 S.Ct. 6, 86 L.Ed. 28');">86 L.Ed. 28 (1941)). In considering general jurisdiction under the Due Process Clause, the court decided the railroad lacked sufficient contacts with Oregon to render it "at home" in the state. Barrett II, 361 Or. at 119. Therefore, it held that Oregon courts could not exercise personal jurisdiction over the railroad under the United States Supreme Court's decision in Daimler AG v. Bauman, 517 U.S. 117, 134 S.Ct. 746, 187 L.Ed.2d 624 (2014). Barrett II, 361 Or. at 123.

         A few months later, in BNSF Railway Co. v. Tyrrell, the United States Supreme Court addressed the same issue with regard to Montana state courts. ___ U.S. ___, 137 S.Ct. 1549, 198 L.Ed.2d 36 (2017) (Tyrrell II). The Montana Supreme Court had held a Montana state court could exercise personal jurisdiction over BNSF under section 56 and, in the alternative, under the state's long-arm statute. Tyrrell II, 137 S.Ct. at 1553-54. The United States Supreme Court reversed, holding "that § 56 does not address personal jurisdiction over railroads." Tyrrell II, 137 S.Ct. at 1553. The Court went further to state, "Nowhere in Kepner or in any other decision did we intimate that § 56 might affect personal jurisdiction." Tyrrell II, 137 S.Ct. at 1555. With regard to general jurisdiction, the Court clarified that its Daimler decision "applies to all state-court assertions of general jurisdiction over nonresident defendants." Tyrrell II, 137 S.Ct. at 1553. It then determined that BNSF lacked sufficient contacts with Montana to warrant general jurisdiction under the Due Process Clause. Tyrrell II, 137 S.Ct. at 1558-59.

         After the decisions in Barrett II and Tyrrell II, BNSF filed a motion for summary judgment in the Langlois matter, arguing the court lacked personal jurisdiction. The trial court agreed and dismissed the case.

         B. Washington Complaint

         On March 15, 2017, less than two weeks after the Barrett II decision, Langlois filed this FELA action in King County Superior Court. The complaint again alleged that BNSF had acted negligently with regard to the injuries Langlois suffered while working in Washington.

         BNSF moved for summary judgment, arguing FELA's three-year statute of limitations barred Langlois's claims. Langlois opposed the motion, asserting that equitable tolling applied. Langlois contended he met both requirements for equitable tolling-i.e., diligence and extraordinary circumstance. The parties did not dispute material facts. Wash. Court of Appeals oral argument, Langlois v. BNSF Ry Co. No. 77752-1-1 (April 18, 2019), at 2 min., 5 sec. through 2 min., 14 sec. and 7 min., 36 sec. through 7 min., 45 sec. (on file with court).

         The trial court agreed with Langlois and denied BNSF's motion for summary judgment. The trial court also appeared to sua sponte grant partial summary judgment in favor of Langlois on the equitable tolling issue.[6] Specifically, the court stated:

I don't think there's any dispute that Plaintiff has been diligent. But what defense argues is that Plaintiff hasn't established that there's any extraordinary circumstance that's occurred.
So the question is really, you know, whether or not the fact that BNSF was routinely submitting to jurisdiction in Oregon on Washington accident cases, whether or not - and I don't think there's really any dispute that they were. And I think that the court denied their motion for summary judgment and had been for some time because that was sort of the practice. And I think it was an unusual or extraordinary circumstance when all of a sudden the court reversed itself and decided that section, I think it's 65, [7] is not - is a venue statute, it doesn't confer personal ...

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