United States District Court, S.D. Illinois
STEVEN R. HUCKABA, Plaintiff,
CSX TRANSPORTATION, INC., Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
STACI M. YANDLE, District Judge.
This matter is before the Court on CSX Transportation, Inc.'s Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law or in the Alternative, Motion for New Trial. (Doc. 70). Plaintiff filed a one count Complaint under FELA on June 18, 2013. (Doc. 2). An eight-member jury was impaneled, and a three day jury trial occurred October 20, 2014 through October 22, 2014. On October 22, 2014, the jury returned a unanimous verdict in favor of Plaintiff in the amount of $355, 000.00 which was reduced by 33% for comparative fault. Judgment was entered on the verdict on October 29, 2014. Defendant has filed a Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law or in the Alternative, Motion for New Trial, (Doc. 70) and Plaintiff filed a response in opposition to the motion. (Doc. 72).
Judgment as a matter of law may be entered where "there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for [a] party on [an] issue." Fed.R.Civ.P. 50. The Court must, after reviewing the record and drawing all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, determine whether the verdict is supported by sufficient evidence. Kossman v. Ne. Illinois Reg'l Commuter R.R. Corp., 211 F.3d 1031, 1036 (7th Cir. 2000). In determining whether the evidence presented at trial is sufficient to withstand a motion for judgment as a matter of law, the district court is not free to weigh the parties' evidence or to pass on the credibility of witnesses or to substitute its judgment of the facts for that of the jury. Rivera v. Nash, 1997 WL 570760, at *1 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 9, 1997). The Court will not overturn a jury's verdict "[a]s long as there is a reasonable basis in the record to support it." Robinson v. Burlington Northern R.R., 131 F.3d 648, 656 (7th Cir.1997). "A trial court should overturn a verdict only where the evidence supports but one conclusion-the conclusion not drawn by the jury." Ryl-Kuchar v. Care Centers, Inc., 565 F.3d 1027, 1030 (7th Cir.2009). This is obviously a difficult standard to meet. A jury verdict can be set aside "[o]nly when there is a complete absence of probative facts to support the conclusion reached...." Harbin v. Burlington Northern R. Co., 921 F.2d 129, 131 (7th Cir.1990).
Defendant asserts that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law for a number of reasons: (1) there was no evidence that Plaintiff's injury was caused by its negligence; (2) there is no evidence that Defendant breached its duty to provide a reasonably safe workplace; (3) there is no evidence that Plaintiff's injury was foreseeable; and (4) Plaintiff is not entitled to lost wages past the date of his voluntary retirement on August 31, 2011.
FELA provides a federal tort remedy for railroad employees injured on the job. See Williams v. Nat'l R. Passenger Corp., 161 F.3d 1059, 1061 (7th Cir.1998). Unlike worker's compensation statutes, FELA requires plaintiffs to prove negligence. See id. However, the Supreme Court has held that the negligence standard is relaxed in FELA cases and a plaintiff, in order to get his case to the jury, need only produce evidence which demonstrates that the "employer['s] negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury.'" Consolidated Rail Corp. v. Gottshall, 512 U.S. 532, 543 (1994). A plaintiff, therefore, carries a lighter burden in a FELA action than in an ordinary negligence case. See Harbin v. Burlington Northern Ry. Co., 921 F.2d 129, 132 (7th Cir.1990) (noting examples of FELA actions submitted to jury based only upon "evidence scarcely more substantial than pigeon bone broth"). Furthermore, courts "have interpreted [FELA] liberally in light of its humanitarian purposes." Williams, 161 F.3d at 1061.
Defendant argues that no evidence was offered that a three man lift of the generator was unsafe. However, in his Order Denying Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, Judge Regan held that;
Plaintiff's testimony that he thought three men would be enough to lift the generator, that he believed a three-man lift was safe, or that he did not believe he needed mechanical assistance when they made the plan to lift the generator, does not render CSX's conduct non-negligent. Plaintiff's beliefs do not equate to the legal standard under FELA or set the bar for satisfying CSX's duty under FELA.
"Circumstantial evidence is sufficient to establish FELA liability, and... a jury can make reasonable inferences based on that circumstantial evidence even where conflicting inferences are also appropriate and no direct evidence establishes which inference is correct." Lynch v. Ne. Reg'l Commuter R.R. Corp., 700 F.3d 906, 917 (7th Cir. 2012).
In the case at bar, Plaintiff provided evidence at trial that Defendant sent employee Wineinger to the Marshall facility to pick up a generator. (Wineinger Depo, p. 20). Wineinger drove to the Marshall facility in one of Defendant's trucks to pick up the generator. ( Id., pp. 21-22). Plaintiff and Tony Ogle, a backhoe operator, were the only other employees at the Marshall facility when Wineinger arrived to pick up the generator. (Ogle Depo., p. 9).
The generator weighed 225 pounds and was the largest that Plaintiff used while working for Defendant, and Defendant's investigation concluded it was heavier than most generators it used. (Pl. Ex. 4, p. 8). Although Defendant owned and used other types of generators, the 225 pound generator at issue was the only generator available. (Wineinger Depo., pp. 20-21). The bed of Defendant's high rail truck was almost three feet off the ground. (Pl. Ex. 4, p.8). Despite the height of the truck's bed and the generator's size and weight, Defendant did not provide any equipment to help get the generator into the truck. Such devices were available, but apparently not at Marshall. In addition, the high rail truck did not have a lift, pole, or other equipment to lift the generator. (Wineinger, p. 22-24, p. 31 and Ogle, pp. 27-29). Defendant's own investigative team later used a knuckle boom to load the generator into the actual vehicle used on the day in question. (Ex. 4, p. 8). As a result of the lack of mechanical assistance, Defendant required Plaintiff, Wineinger, and Ogle to lift the generator into the high rail vehicle. Plaintiff testified that he did not lift generators on a regular basis. Defendant provided Plaintiff no information concerning the weight of the generator. (Ogle, 3, p. 25 and Wineinger, p. 27).
The record and reasonable inferences allowed the jury to reasonably conclude that the Defendant was negligent in failing to provide equipment to move the generator, in requiring Plaintiff to manually lift the generator, in failing to instruct Plaintiff on how to lift a 225 pound generator, in failing to warn Plaintiff of the weight of the generator, and in failing to provide a reasonably safe place to work in those various ways. See Heater v. Chesapeake & O. Ry. Co., 497 F.2d 1243, 1247 (7th Cir. 1974) (jury could reasonably find the railroad was negligent in "failing to use a mechanical crane or, at least, in failing to assign more men to the task."). Under established standards, there was sufficient evidence presented at trial to permit the jury to reach the conclusion it did on these issues.
The next issue is whether there was sufficient evidence for the jury to conclude that the injury was foreseeable. "Where the tortfeasor is liable for death or injuries in producing which his negligence played any part, even the slightest, such a tortfeasor must compensate his victim for even the improbable or unexpectedly severe consequences of his wrongful act." Gallick v. Baltimore & O. R. Co., 372 U.S. 108, 120-21 (1963). A railroad defendant owes a duty to act reasonably not only given the existing conditions, but anticipated conditions as well. McDonald v. Northeast Illinois Regional, 249 F.Supp.1051, 1055 (N.D.Ill. 2003).
In this case, there is sufficient evidence to support an inference of foreseeability. Defendant was aware of the bad weather on February 3, 2011, resulting from the severe ice and snow storm which had swept through the area prior to the incident. (Mathews Depo., pp. 14-16). With power outages, it was foreseeable that generators would be needed. At the time of the incident, Defendant knew that the only employees at the Marshall facility were Plaintiff and Tony Ogle. (Ogle, p. 9). Defendant owned other generators, but the only one available at Marshall at the time in question was new, had never been lifted by Plaintiff or the other workers, and was heavier than most generators. (Wineinger, pp. 20-21 & Mathews, pp. 21-22). Defendant provided Wineinger the truck with the 35-inch high bed to get the generator. (Exhibit 4 & Wineinger, pp. 23-24). Defendant did not provide equipment to move the generator from the ground to the bed of Wineinger's truck even though it knew ahead of time that generators would be needed and that such mechanical lifts could be provided. (Wineinger, p. 22, p. 31 and Ogle, pp. 27-29).
Without mechanical assistance, it was certainly foreseeable that the only men present to assist Wineinger were Ogle and Plaintiff. (Ogle, pp. 43-44, Wineinger, pp. 6-7, p. 26 & Exhibit 4). Further circumstantial evidence of foreseeability was Defendant's own safety rules and instructions regarding lifting. Defendant offered programs explaining how to lift safely. (Wineinger, pp. 32-33). The programs discussed proper lifting techniques. (Wineinger, pp. 32-33). Moreover, the programs instructed its workers to use a lift or hoist if ...