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VAILLANCOURT v. ILLINOIS CENT. R.R. CO.

May 29, 1992

ROBERT A. VAILLANCOURT, Plaintiff,
v.
ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD COMPANY, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: CHARLES RONALD NORGLE, SR.

 ORDER

 Before the court are the plaintiff's motion to enter judgment on the jury verdict and the defendant's motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, for a mistrial, and for a new trial. For reasons that follow, the plaintiff's motion is granted and all of the defendant's motions are denied.

 FACTS

 The plaintiff, Robert A. Vaillancourt ("Vaillancourt"), an engineer with the defendant Illinois Central Railroad Company ("IC"), tripped over an ice chest in an IC locomotive on the night of August 13, 1988. As a result, Vaillancourt allegedly suffered a shoulder injury which required surgery to correct, as well as injuries to his back, neck and an arm. Vaillancourt filed the instant lawsuit against the IC on February 13, 1990, alleging negligence under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. §§ 51-60 ("FELA"), and violations of the Boiler Inspection Act (among the Safety Appliance Acts, 45 U.S.C. § 22 et seq.). Following a trial, the jury returned a $ 198,226 verdict for Vaillancourt on October 30, 1991.

 The facts at trial, cast in a light favorable to the plaintiff, showed the following:

 1. On the night of the accident, Vaillancourt was assigned to work as the engineer on a freight train originating from the IC's Markham Yard in Homewood, Illinois. The lead locomotive, No. 3009, contained an ice chest approximately two feet high, three feet long and two feet wide, bolted to the floor near the fireman's and brakeman's seats. There was a clearance of about a foot and a half between the seats and the cooler.

 2. Around 8:30 p.m., while there was still some daylight, Vaillancourt arrived at the train yard, placed his suitcase in the yard office, and proceeded to the four-engine "consist" of locomotives to which he was assigned. After checking the oil and other fluids in the locomotives, Vaillancourt entered the lead engine, No. 3009, through the rear door on the engineer's side. He then drove the consist over to the yard office, and exited No. 3009, leaving his flashlight inside.

 3. The temperature was around 90 degrees. The windows in the non-air conditioned lead engine were left open. The interior light in the engine, which had not been turned on, was left off in order to avoid attracting bugs.

 4. Around 10:00 or 10:30 p.m., when it was completely dark outside, Vaillancourt received clearance to take the consist and hook it up to the rest of the train. Carrying his suitcase in his right hand, Vaillancourt climbed up on the engine and walked along the front to the side door on the brakeman's side. He then opened the door with his left hand. Lifting his suitcase over the brakeman's and fireman's seats, Vaillancourt stepped around the seats in order to reach the interior light switch. Before reaching the switch, he tripped over the ice chest, suffering various injuries.

 5. When Vaillancourt first entered engine 3009 that evening, following the fluids check, he had no occasion to walk across the crew's compartment to the brakeman's side. He was unaware of the location and size of the ice chest prior to tripping over it. IC engines contain ice chests to hold beverages for the crew. Those chests, however, vary in size and are not always placed in the same location on engines of the same type as No. 3009. Some ice chests, for example, are placed at waist level on metal supports.

 6. Vaillancourt, age 36 at the time of the accident, has been an IC employee since 1970 and an engineer since 1978. Prior to that night, he had never been in the crew compartment of engine 3009. That engine had been part of the consist on at least one freight train he had driven earlier, but not as the lead engine.

 The verdict form which the jurors signed contained nine interrogatories. The jury answered "yes" to the first seven interrogatories, which asked (1) whether the IC violated the Boiler Inspection Section of the Safety Appliance Act, (2) whether that violation caused "in whole or in part" Vaillancourt's injuries, (3) whether the IC violated a federal regulation (codified at 49 C.F.R. § 229.119(c)) requiring that floors of locomotives be kept free of "any obstruction that creates a slipping, tripping or fire hazard," (4) whether that violation was a contributing cause of Vaillancourt's injuries, (5) whether the IC was negligent, (6) whether that negligence contributed to Vaillancourt's injuries, and (7) whether Vaillancourt was negligent. The eighth interrogatory asked the extent of Vaillancourt's negligence, which the jury assessed as 5%. The ninth interrogatory, which asked for the amount necessary to compensate Vaillancourt without any reduction for his contributory negligence, was answered "100% $ 198,226.00."

 When the jury first returned its verdict, the ninth interrogatory was answered "100%." This court then told the jurors that they had answered that interrogatory improperly and asked them to reread the instructions and resume their deliberations. Shortly thereafter, the jury submitted a written question asking for the total amount of damages requested by plaintiff's counsel in his closing argument. Both parties' counsel were consulted in chambers regarding an appropriate response. The IC's counsel urged the court not to answer the jury's question at all, and refused to suggest or consider possible answers. This court suggested submitting a transcript of the relevant portion of the closing arguments, and the IC rejected that alternative. Over the IC's objection, the court ...


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