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Debiasio v. Illinois Central Railroad

April 13, 1995

STEVE DEBIASIO, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,

v.

ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 92 C 2281--Anthony A. Alaimo, Judge.

Before ESCHBACH, COFFEY, and RIPPLE, Circuit Judges.

ESCHBACH, Circuit Judge

ARGUED JANUARY 10, 1995

DECIDED APRIL 13, 1995

Steve DeBiasio was seriously injured while in the employment of the Illinois Central Railroad ("IC"). DeBiasio brought this action against IC alleging violations of the Federal Employers' Liability Act ("FELA"), 45 U.S.C. secs. 51-60, and the Federal Safety Appliance Act ("FSAA"), 45 U.S.C. secs. 1-43. The jury found IC liable under both Acts and awarded DeBiasio $4,201,000 in damages. IC appeals the finding of liability and the award of damages. As to the issue of liability, IC challenges the sufficiency of the evidence and certain evidentiary rulings of the trial court. We have concluded that the evidence was sufficient and, while the trial court erred in a significant evidentiary ruling, such error was harmless. We affirm.

I.

Railroads connect individual freight cars together through a coupling mechanism located at either end of each car. The coupling mechanism consists of a drawbar and a knuckle that connects with an adjacent car. A pin inside the coupler knuckle locks the knuckle in a closed position. Using a "pin lifter" or uncoupling lever, the pin can be removed and the knuckle can be opened without having to step between the rails. As long as the couplers on both cars are set properly so that the drawbar, which rests on a pivot to allow the car to round curves without derailing, is aligned and at least one of the knuckles is open, two cars will connect automatically upon impact.

In a classification or switching yard, the railroad is able to separate freight cars which are currently coupled together and reassemble them with other cars having common destinations. The yard normally consists of "lead" tracks, where inbound trains come in and wait to be switched, and a number of individual tracks where the reassembled cars are placed. During a "flat switching" operation, an engineer begins to back up a set of cars toward a designated track. The switch list indicates in what order cars are going to be switched into each track. A switchman then uncouples a group or "cut" of cars by pulling the pin lifter attached to the front coupling mechanism on the following car. When the pin is lifted, the engine stops and its momentum sends the now unattached cars into the bowl-shaped area of the yard. The descending cars are directed into the appropriate track according to the switch list where they are automatically coupled upon impact with the cars presently sitting in that track.

In the early hours of the morning on February 6, 1992, DeBiasio was performing his duties as a switchman for IC at its Glenn Yard in Chicago. DeBiasio was then 33 years old and had worked for IC for 13 years. His crew included John Smith, the engineer operating the switching engine, Tony Manestar, the conductor in charge of the crew, and, Johnny Wilson, the utility switchman who at the time was lifting the pins to release cars to one of the Yard's twenty tracks. DeBiasio was the field switchman responsible for opening and closing the switches so that the cars would roll into the proper tracks, and checking to see if the cars coupled on impact with the cars already standing on those tracks.

DeBiasio's shift had started at 10:30 pm. After the crew ate "lunch" at around 2:00 in the morning, Manestar distributed the switch list for the rest of the shift's operations. Smith lined a cut of 22 cars onto the switching lead for tracks 1-10. In the second movement of cars after lunch, three cars were sent, or "kicked," onto track 8. Wilson testified that he was able to pull the pin on the coupler connecting the last car to remain with the train with the three cars to be released, and the momentum of the three cars' release opened up the knuckle on IC car 388423 which remained and became the lead car for the next cut of cars. Thus, on the subsequent movement, when six cars were released for track 3, the lead car's coupler was in the open position, ready for coupling. After DeBiasio flipped the switch for track 3 in preparation for this movement, he informed Manestar by radio that there was insufficient room in track 3 for the scheduled six cars. When this happens, a cut of cars may "foul" the lead track, so that the cars do not go completely onto the designated track and thus block the lead track. DeBiasio thus returned to track 3 to check on the progress of the six cars which had already been released. As DeBiasio was walking along the lead to track 3, he heard the 6 cars make contact with the cars already on that track. Listening to his radio, DeBiasio heard that the fourth movement of cars had also taken place and they were now planning on sending 2 additional cars to track 3. When he heard the impact of these two cars on the six other cars presently on track 3, he assumed that track 3 was no longer a "live" track and the other switch movements would not affect his ability to inspect the six cars on track 3.

DeBiasio discovered that there was a gap of 20-25 feet between car 388423 and the standing cars on track 3. He noticed that the knuckle on car 388423's coupling mechanism was now closed when it previously had been open. Thus, he believed the cars had failed to couple automatically upon impact. DeBiasio then proceeded to attempt to open the knuckle on car 388423 with the pin lifter so as to prepare the cars for a second attempt at automatic coupling. After several failed attempts with the pin lifter, DeBiasio had to place one foot inside the rail and between the cars in order to try to manually open the knuckle. At this point, DeBiasio heard a loud impact against the cars on track 3 and was pushed over by the oncoming cut of cars. His left arm was caught under the wheels of one of the cars, resulting in its amputation at the shoulder.

On April 3, 1992, DeBiasio brought this action against IC alleging negligence in violation of FELA, and the failure to maintain couplers which couple automatically upon impact, in violation of FSAA. The case went to trial before a jury on May 18, 1994. The jury returned a verdict in favor of DeBiasio and awarded $4,201,000 in damages. The district court denied IC's motions for judgment as a matter of law, or, in the alternative, for a new trial on all issues, or in the alternative for a new trial on damages or a remittitur. A timely motion of appeal was filed.

II.

IC claims three grounds for reversal of all or part of the jury's verdict: (1) insufficiency of the evidence as a matter of law; (2) errors in the admission and exclusion of certain evidence; and (3) excessiveness of the verdict and a failure to mitigate damages. *fn1 We will address each issue in turn.

A. Judgment as a Matter of Law and Motion for a New Trial

DeBiasio's claim rests on alleged violations of FSAA and FELA. At the conclusion of the presentation of the evidence, IC moved for judgment as a matter of law on these claims. We review de novo the district court's denial of a motion for judgment as a matter of law. Frazier v. Norfolk & Western Ry. Co., 996 F.2d 922, 924 (7th Cir. 1993). Our inquiry is limited to whether the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and drawing all reasonable inferences therefrom, is sufficient to support the jury's verdict. Id. (quoting Siddiqi v. Leak, 880 F.2d 904, 908 (7th Cir. 1989)). After the jury's verdict, IC also moved for a new trial, contending that the verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence. We will ...


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