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December 21, 1995


Appeal from Circuit Court of Champaign County. No. 92L74. Honorable George S. Miller, Judge Presiding.

As Modified On Denial of Rehearing.

The Honorable Justice Knecht delivered the opinion of the court: Steigmann and McCULLOUGH, JJ., concur.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Knecht


The Honorable Justice KNECHT delivered the opinion of the court:

Plaintiff William Albin appeals the trial court's denial of his motion for directed verdict, his post-trial motion for a new trial, or, in the alternative, judgment n.o.v. We affirm.

Plaintiff, an employee of defendant Illinois Central Gulf Railroad, injured his back in January 1990 while attempting to manually align a coupler on a railroad car. He brought suit against defendant under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) (45 U.S.C. §§ 51 through 60 (1988)). He alleged his injuries were caused by several acts of negligence by defendant, and by defendant's violation of the Federal Safety Appliance Act (Act) (45 U.S.C. §§ 1 through 16 (1988)).

The trial occurred in June 1994. Plaintiff, a train conductor at the time of his injury, was responsible for coupling railroad cars. The coupler apparatus on either end of a car consists of a knuckle and a drawbar. The knuckle opens and closes and clasps onto the knuckle of an adjacent car. The drawbar connects the knuckle to the frame of the car and has some lateral movement so the train can travel around curves without derailing. The knuckles and drawbars must be centered for a proper coupling to occur.

On January 8, 1990, plaintiff was working with his crew, brakemen Karl Drake and Charlie Davidson and engineer Walter Mack, coupling cars together. Plaintiff communicated with the crew using a two-way radio. Around 10 p.m., the engine was connected to a caboose and three tank cars. The tank car at the end was number 479; tank car 1185 was 2 1/2 car lengths away. Plaintiff looked at the knuckles on both cars to make sure they were open and straight. He signaled to Mack to move the train ahead at a slow walking speed. When the knuckles came together, the couple failed. The knuckles jammed, which knocked them and the drawbars askew in opposite directions.

Plaintiff told Mack to back the train up one car length. He then manually set the knuckle and drawbar on 1185. To do this, he cradled the coupler in his stomach and arms, bent his knees, and then straightened his knees to lift and push the coupler into alignment. He learned how to do this by observing other employees because defendant never provided any training or standard procedure for, or equipment to, help with realigning a drawbar. Plaintiff then went to 479 to realign its knuckle and drawbar using the same procedure. As he did so, he felt a sharp pain in his lower back. He let go of the coupler and radioed for a time-out. After resting briefly, he pulled on a lever to open the knuckle and felt the pain again. He radioed he thought he broke his back and lay down. Drake and Davidson completed his duties that evening, but plaintiff stayed with the crew. When they returned to the yard, he called Rondeau DuFrane, the yardmaster, to report his injury and then went to the hospital.

The track in that location is not level. The north rail is lower than the south rail because a joint between the rails is low. This has been caused by the pulverization of the rock foundation under the rail and joint because of the repeated traveling of traincars over them. Also, a ditch on the north side of the track frequently filled with water, which would turn the ground underneath the north rail to mud and rot the railroad ties. The coupling failed because 1185 was leaning more to the north than was 479, so the knuckles were not properly aligned.

Plaintiff admitted after the coupling failed, he did not radio Mack this had occurred. After he aligned the drawbars, the cars coupled on the second attempt, during which the cars were in the same position at the same track location, and the track conditions were identical. On the accident report he filed, he did not mention uneven tracks or a low joint. It would be "ill-advised" to get between cars that are six feet apart or less while they are connected to a running engine, and he would not do this. He admitted he wrote a letter to defendant saying his job requires very little physical effort. On a safety exam given by defendant, he answered correctly regarding the proper method of manually lifting an object. He could not say for certain a low joint existed where the coupling failed.

John Loberg repaired and supervised the repair of railroad cars for several railroad companies between 1953 and 1992. He reviewed several depositions, including plaintiff's. He believed the coupling failed because the low joint caused the tracks to not be level, thereby causing one of the cars to lean and the knuckles to be misaligned. The joint would have to be three inches low to cause the coupling to fail. Other railroads use three tools to realign a misaligned drawbar: a pry bar, a coupler aligning strap, and a "knuckle mate." The bar provides leverage to move the drawbars without standing between the cars. The strap is placed around the knuckles of each car, and then the strap's tension is increased by the engine pulling on the cars until the knuckles are aligned. The knuckle mate is similar to the strap. Loberg admitted he did not know where the low joint was in relation to where the coupling was attempted, or how low the joint was. His opinion assumed plaintiff aligned the drawbars correctly the first time. He did not find any safety rules broken and had no opinion whether there was any defective equipment. Using either the strap or the knuckle mate requires an employee to stand between the cars when they are four or less feet apart.

Drake, a brakeman on plaintiff's crew, heard plaintiff call for a time-out over the radio because he had injured his back while moving a drawbar. He did not hear Mack, the engineer, say anything. The track in that area slants to the north. The standard procedure of defendant is to have workers manually align drawbars. Defendant has never issued any safety rules on aligning drawbars, ...

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