In Wolfe v. BNSF Railway Co., ___ F.3d ___ (9th Cir. April 23, 2014), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the order of the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana (Judge Cebull) granting defendant’s motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s state law-based claim.

Plaintiff was employed by defendant railroad as a track inspector whose employment was terminated after his “hi-rail truck” collided head-on with a freight train, despite the defendant’s acknowledgment that its dispatcher had mistakenly approved plaintiff’s request to go in the direction of an oncoming train. Although plaintiff was subsequently reinstated, it was without back pay. Consequently, Plaintiff filed an action against the railroad in state court alleging that defendant’s mismanagement and the negligence of its employees caused the train collision. Specifically, plaintiff asserted that defendant failed to properly train him on how to use certain systems, provided him with a hi-rail truck that was in poor operating condition, and the dispatcher failed to provide him with proper track authority and failed to warn him of the oncoming freight train. Defendant removed the action to federal court and moved for summary judgment on the ground that the claim was preempted by the Railway Labor Act (“RLA”) because the collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) that governed plaintiff’s employment needed to be interpreted in order to resolve the claim.  The district court granted the motion and plaintiff appealed.

The appellate court reversed, finding that plaintiff’s claim concerning defendant’s conduct leading to the collision was independent of the CBA and did not require interpretation of the CBA, and therefore the claim was not preempted by the RLA.  As the court noted, the crucial inquiry in determining whether a claim under state law is preempted by the RLA is whether the “state-law claim is dependent on the interpretation of a CBA.” If the claim can be resolved without interpreting the agreement it is “independent” of the CBA for preemption purposes.  Here, there were no provisions in the CBA regarding (1) how defendant should have managed training employees for its systems, (2) how defendant should maintain hi-rail trucks to ensure that they are in safe operating condition, (3) how defendant should handle claims for co-worker negligence, or (4) how defendant should handle claims that it mismanaged its employees.