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Higgins v. Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad Co.

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois

June 10, 2014



JAMES E. SHADID, Chief District Judge.

This matter is now before the Court on Defendant BNSF's Motion for Summary Judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion [31] is GRANTED.


This action is brought pursuant to the Federal Employers' Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. ยงยง 51-59. Plaintiff, Dennis Higgins ("Higgins") was born on September 26, 1950. He began working as a laborer for BNSF in 1977 and after a year, switched to the position of machinist for the remainder of his employment. As a machinist, Higgins generally serviced locomotives, repaired damage to rail cars, and replaced parts. From 1986 to 1996, he worked in the Galesburg, Illinois diesel shop. In 1996, he went to the West Burlington, Iowa show, where he worked until returning to Galesburg in 2005 or 2006. When he returned to Galesburg, Higgins worked in the diesel pit, working on brake shoes, changing oil, and checking for leaks in the locomotives. After some period of time, he switched to the "ready side, " where he hooked up locomotives, did air tests on locomotives, and got outbound locomotives ready for departing trains.

Higgins and Steven Heckenberg ("Heckenberg") worked together from the time Higgins returned from West Burlington until his retirement in 2010. During this time, Dave Anderson ("Anderson") was their supervisor. At no time did Higgins complain to Anderson that his knee interfered with his ability to work or that he felt that his work was unsafe. Nevertheless, Higgins and Heckenberg allocated their job responsibilities between them to accommodate Higgins' knee problems beginning in 2005. Both Heckenberg and Anderson noticed Higgins' knee problems in 2005. Heckenberg saw Higgins limping and favoring one leg and offered him his choice of which part of the job he wanted to do to make it easier on Higgins.

In October 2009, Higgins' left knee was evaluated by Dr. Steven Potaczek, an orthopedic surgeon, who drained approximately 50 cubic centimeters of fluid from Higgins' knee. He was diagnosed as having chronic arthritis of both knees that people get as part of the normal aging process, with the left knee being worse than the right. Dr. Potaczek testified that he did not know what Higgins' job duties were on the railroad and that, irrespective of where he worked, he probably would have gotten arthritis anyway.

On March 26, 2010, Higgins saw another orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Joseph Martin. Dr. Martin diagnosed osteoarthritis of the left knee but had no opinion as to what caused the osteoarthritis; he had no knowledge of Higgins' job duties as a machinist or the length of time he performed those duties. After discussing both surgical and non-surgical options, Higgins decided to proceed with a left knee replacement on June 7, 2010. Post-operatively, in August and September 2010, Higgins had no complaints, with no pain and a full range of motion in his knee. Dr. Martin determined that Higgins could return to work on September 8, 2010. Higgins asserts that following his knee surgery, he was no longer able to perform his duties as a machinist.

Dr. Lonn Hutcheson, an expert in the areas of occupational and functional anatomy, conducted an in depth evaluation of Higgins' workplace and job duties at the BNSF diesel shop in Galesburg. Dr. Hutcheson concluded:

The duties and tasks performed by Dennis Higgins, in my opinion, and to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty, were not unsafe, nor would it have been foreseeable by BNSF that Dennis Higgins was or would be at risk for the development of musculoskeletal disorder. If, in fact, putative occupational risk factors such as prolonged highly forceful activity, awkward posture, and highly repetitive activity are causally associated with the development of musculoskeletal disorders, the duties, tasks and activities that I have reviewed do not present a foreseeable risk for such disorders.

Another expert, Dr. Kurt Hegmann, opined:

Mr. Higgins' job physical tasks appear to have involved minimal to minor amounts of kneeling and/or squatting. There is no epidemiological literature associating such minor amounts of kneeling and/or squatting with the development of knee arthritis. Mr. Higgins' non-occupational factors completely explain his condition. Thus, Mr. Higgins' knee arthritis and the need for a knee replacement is non-occupational and was not caused, aggravated, accelerated and/or contributed to by his occupational activities.

On March 1, 2012, Higgins brought this action alleging that his knee injuries were the result of negligence by BNSF in that they failed to provide him with a safe place to work, failed to provide adequate equipment, failed to provide safe methods of work, failed to provide adequate instructions, failed to warn of the dangers associated with cumulative trauma disorders, failed to properly evaluate the workplace for conditions and methods at risk for the development of cumulative trauma disorder, failed to educate on the risk of cumulative trauma disorder, failed to institute or develop a proper ergonomic program at the West Burlington shop, and assigned duties which BNSF knew or should have known were beyond Higgins' capacity or which could otherwise aggravate his medical condition or cause injury to him. BNSF has moved for summary judgment, and this Order follows.


A motion for summary judgment will be granted where there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). The moving party has the responsibility of informing the Court of portions of the record or affidavits that demonstrate the absence of a triable issue. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552 (1986). The moving party may meet its burden of showing an absence of material facts by demonstrating "that there is an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case." Id. at 2553. However, a plaintiff's uncorroborated testimony or subjective belief standing alone is insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Weeks v. Samsung Heavy Indus. Co., Ltd. , 126 F.3d 926, 939 (7th Cir. 1997); Chiaramonte v. Fashion Bed Group, Inc. , 129 F.3d 391, 401 (7th Cir. 1997). Any ...

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