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Ueland v. United States

June 03, 2002


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 99 C 2960--John W. Darrah, Judge.

Before Easterbrook, Rovner, and Diane P. Wood, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Easterbrook, Circuit Judge

Argued May 16, 2002

A collision between a prison van and its chase car has led to this suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The van was carrying four prisoners from the federal prison in Pekin, Illinois, to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago. The driver of the chase car, trailing the van for security, was supposed to ensure that no other vehicle would come between the two. During stop-and-go driving on a congested road, the chase car hit the van. According to the Bureau of Prisons, the relative speed of the collision was between 5 and 10 miles per hour, all prisoners had been wearing seat belts, no injuries ensued, and the van (which suffered no damage from the impact) drove to its destination. According to Timothy Ueland, the plaintiff in this case, none of the prisoners had been secured with a seat belt, and he was thrown violently by a high-speed impact into the "cage" at the front of the van. Ueland contends that he suffered back and neck injuries that have caused him great pain.

Ueland's testimony at trial was supported by a chiropractor and in part by James Reed, a physician at the federal prison to which Ueland was transferred following his detention in Chicago. Dr. Reed testified that Ueland has serious back injuries. The United States' position was supported by the testimony of three guards who participated in the transportation plus that of Dr. Reed, who opined that Ueland's back problem predated the accident. At the close of trial, the district judge ruled from the bench. The judge did not make findings on any of the concrete disputes (such as whether the prisoners had the benefit of seat belts, the speed difference between the van and the car at the time of the impact, whether the shock threw the prisoners forward, and what the medical consequences for Ueland had been). Instead, after reciting a few uncontested points, such as that a collision had occurred and that the chase car's driver had been negligent, the judge stated:

I further find, however, that the defendant [sic: must mean Ueland] has failed to meet its [sic] burden of proof that this negligent conduct of the operator of the vehicle following the one in which the plaintiff was riding was the proximate cause of any injuries to the plaintiff. And I further find that the plaintiff has failed to meet its--his burden of proof that the plaintiff suffered any damages as a result of the negligence of the defendant. Therefore, the complaint filed by the defendant [sic] herein and the relief sought is denied, and judgment is entered on that complaint in favor of the defendant United States.

These uninformative conclusions do not satisfy Fed. R. Civ. P. 52(a), which says that "[i]n all actions tried upon the facts without a jury . . ., the court shall find the facts specially and state separately its conclusions of law thereon". Here the district judge did not find any facts or reveal his resolution of any of the factual disputes that had received attention at trial. Cf. Jutzi-Johnson v. United States, 263 F.3d 753 (7th Cir. 2001). We cannot rectify this by remanding for compliance with Rule 52, because the judge also committed a serious evidentiary error.

Ueland offered as substantive evidence the deposition of Chong-Won Tai, another of the prisoners in the van. This deposition, taken by the United States in a separate lawsuit, provided evidence supporting Ueland's description of the events. Chong-Won Tai testified that the van had been going fast and suddenly decelerated before the collision, implying that the relative speed of the impact was high; he also testified that the prisoners had not been wearing seat belts and that the force threw them against the cage. The Assistant United States Attorney objected on hearsay grounds. (Actually, the district judge objected for her, and she then chimed in to support the judge's order sustaining his own objection.) Yet the deposition could not properly be excluded as hearsay.

At the trial . . . any part or all of a deposition, so far as admissible under the rules of evidence applied as though the witness were then present and testifying, may be used against any party who was present or represented at the taking of the deposition or who had reasonable notice thereof, in accordance with any of the following provisions: . . .

(3) The deposition of a witness, whether or not a party, may be used by any party for any purpose if the court finds:

(A) that the witness is dead; or

(B) that the witness is at a greater distance than 100 miles from the place of trial or hearing, or is out of the United States, unless it appears that the absence of the witness was procured by the partyoffering the deposition; or

(C) that the witness is unable to attend or testify because of age, illness, infirmity, or imprisonment; or

(D) that the party offering the deposition has been unable to procure the attendance of the ...

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