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Harp v. Illinois Central Gulf R.r. Co.

OPINION FILED NOVEMBER 28, 1977.

MERLE HARP, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,

v.

ILLINOIS CENTRAL GULF RAILROAD COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Madison County; the Hon. JOHN GITCHOFF, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE GEORGE J. MORAN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Defendant, Illinois Central Gulf Railroad Company, appeals from a judgment entered on a jury verdict in a case brought under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) (45 USCA § 51), assigning as error the court's denial of the post-trial motion, which prayed for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and in the alternative a new trial.

Plaintiff Merle Harp alleged injury to his back in the course of his employment as a brakeman. He testified that the injury occurred on July 21, 1971, when he alighted from a moving train to perform a switching operation in the Ridgley yard. According to Harp, although the ballast looked secure before he jumped, it was actually loose and unpacked. He lost his balance, threw himself away from the engine to avoid injury, and felt a snap in his lower back resulting in the injuries upon which this suit was brought.

Harp also testified that the maintenance-of-way crew had been replacing old ties in the area where he was injured. The crew would dig the ballast away from the ties, pull the spikes, remove the old ties from under the rail and install new ties. The ballast would remain loose and unpacked until a machine was brought in to elevate and tamp it. Plaintiff testified that old ties had been spread along the opposite side of the track, as they would be if the work had been done in that area. He testified that the old ties, weeds and poison ivy alongside the tracks forced him to drop off the train at the place he was injured.

H.E. Kirgan, a member of plaintiff's crew, testified for the defendant. He testified that he did not see ties or piles of ballast in the area where plaintiff alighted from the train. John Prendle, a conductor on the train where plaintiff performed his duties as brakeman, also testified for the defense. He did not notice any unusual condition of the tracks or ballast in the area where plaintiff was injured.

Michael Brangenberg who was head brakeman on the train at the time of plaintiff's injury, testified in rebuttal. He testified that ties were being replaced in the area and that the work had begun a month previously. Brangenberg also asserted that ballast which is actually loose and unpacked will appear secure when viewed from the position of the plaintiff.

Richard Rhoads, a brakeman and legislative representative for the union, also testified in rebuttal. According to Rhoads, he had complained to the management about the condition of the roadbed in the area of the injury prior to the time of plaintiff's injury. Ties and ballast were being replaced in the area for some time prior to July 21, 1971, and the complaints centered on the presence of old ties and weeds in the Ridgley yard.

Appellant first contends the trial court erred in failing to direct a verdict where plaintiff failed to adduce substantial evidence of defendant's knowledge of the dangerous condition of the ballast.

• 1, 2 In cases under the FELA, Federal decisional law controls in determining whether the case warrants submission to the jury. Vandaveer v. Norfolk & Western Ry. Co., 78 Ill. App.2d 186, 222 N.E.2d 897.

"Under this statute the test of a jury case is simply whether the proofs justify with reason the conclusion that employer negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury or death for which damages are sought. It does not matter that, from the evidence, the jury may also within reason, on grounds of probability, attribute the result to other causes, including the employee's contributory negligence. Judicial appraisal of the proofs to determine whether a jury question is presented is narrowly limited to the single inquiry whether, with reason, the conclusion may be drawn that negligence of the employer played any part at all in the injury or death." Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R.R. Co., 352 U.S. 500, 506-07, 1 L.Ed.2d 493, 499, 77 S.Ct. 443, rehearing denied, 353 U.S. 943, 1 L.Ed.2d 764, 77 S.Ct. 808.

• 3 The evidence and inferences properly flowing from the evidence must be interpreted in the light most favorable to the plaintiff (Wilkerson v. McCarthy, 336 U.S. 53, 93 L.Ed. 497, 96 S.Ct. 413; Steele v. Louisville & Nashville R. Co., 506 F.2d 315, (6th Cir. 1974)), and entirely circumstantial evidence from which an inference of negligence may be properly drawn is sufficient to establish liability if fair minded jurors could differ as to whether the employer's negligence played any part in the injury. Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R. Co., 352 U.S. 500, 508-10, 1 L.Ed.2d 493, 500-02, 77 S.Ct. 443, 449-51.

• 4 It is true, as the appellant notes, that no liability can be assessed where no evidence of defendant's knowledge of the existence of a dangerous condition is presented. (Lilly v. Grand Trunk Western R.R. Co., 312 Ill. App. 73, 37 N.E.2d 888.) In this case, however, the plaintiff's cause of action is based on the failure of the appellant to provide a safe place to work. The gravamen of the case is the failure of the appellant to tamp the ballast after replacing the old railroad tie. This allegation of active negligence on the part of the appellant, if supported by the evidence is sufficient to establish liability without a showing of actual or constructive knowledge of the condition, since the condition was created by the defendant.

The evidence in FELA cases is viewed with great liberality. (Gallick v. Baltimore & Ohio R.R. Co., 372 U.S. 108, 9 L.Ed.2d 618, 83 S.Ct. 659.) While plaintiff did not directly prove the ballast upon which he stepped was not properly tamped, the evidence adduced is sufficient to support such an inference. Plaintiff testified that the ballast was loose and unpacked. He also testified that the maintenance-of-way crew had been replacing ties in the yard during the previous month and had not tamped the ballast immediately after replacing the ties. The continuing replacement of the old ties was corroborated by the witnesses Brangenberg and Rhoads. Both testified that old ties were lying in the weeds in the area of the injury. Although the testimony was contradicted by defense witnesses, the evidence was clearly sufficient to support an inference of negligence, and the resolution of the uncontroverted facts was properly for the jury. Tennant v. Peoria & Pekin Union Ry. Co., 321 U.S. 29, 88 L.Ed. 520, 64 S.Ct. 409; Vandaveer v. Norfolk & Western Ry. Co., 78 Ill. App.2d 186, 222 N.E.2d 897.

• 5 In urging trial court error in failing to direct a verdict, appellant also claims that judicial admissions by the plaintiff clearly contradict his allegation of negligence and should preclude his recovery. (Nowak v. Schrimpf, 44 Ill. App.2d 309, 194 N.E.2d 547.) Appellant claims the statement of plaintiff that the ballast looked secure contradicts his allegation of negligence. This contention is wrong. Plaintiff's failure to observe the true condition of the ballast is not an admission that the ballast was properly packed. Plaintiff later testified that the ballast was in fact loose and gave way ...


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