Alby v. BNSF Ry. Co., A17-1242

Citation918 N.W.2d 562
Decision Date06 August 2018
Docket NumberA17-1242
Parties James ALBY, Appellant, v. BNSF RAILWAY COMPANY, Respondent.
CourtCourt of Appeals of Minnesota

918 N.W.2d 562

James ALBY, Appellant,


Court of Appeals of Minnesota.

Filed August 6, 2018

Mark R. Bradford, Amie E. Penny Sayler, Lauren F. Schoeberl, Bassford Remele, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Paula M. Jossart, Jossart Law Office, LLC, Burnsville, Minnesota (for appellant)

Sam Hanson, Timothy R. Thornton, Matthew R. Brodin, Briggs and Morgan, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Patrick J. Sweeney, Paul A. Banker, Sweeney Law Firm, P.A., St. Paul, Minnesota (for respondent)

Considered and decided by Schellhas, Presiding Judge; Ross, Judge; and Hooten, Judge.


Following a jury verdict in this case arising under the Federal Employers Liability Act, appellant challenges the district court’s grant of judgment as a matter of law to respondent and argues that the

918 N.W.2d 565

court erred in applying the federal postjudgment interest rate. Respondent challenges the court’s denial of its motion for a new trial. We affirm in part and reverse in part.


Respondent BNSF Railway Company (BNSF) employed appellant James Alby for approximately 20 years as a conductor and engineer. In January 2014, Alby experienced back pain and could not move. Alby’s treating orthopedic surgeon and medical-causation expert, Dr. Stefano Sinicropi, concluded that Alby suffered from degenerative disc disease and a disc herniation. Beginning in the spring of 2014, Alby underwent multiple medical procedures to address his back injury.

In June 2014, Alby sued BNSF under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. § 51, alleging that BNSF’s negligence, including violations of federal track standard regulations and the Locomotive Inspection Act (LIA), 49 U.S.C. § 20701 (2012), caused his back injury. BNSF moved to exclude Alby’s proffered expert opinion, including that of Dr. Sinicropi, and moved for summary judgment. The district court denied BNSF’s motions and the case proceeded to trial by jury.

Alby testified at trial, along with Beau Price (BNSF’s Director of Locomotive and Air Brake Systems), Dennis Luft (Alby’s coworker at BNSF), Alan Blackwell (engineer), Dr. Robert Andres (ergonomist), and Dr. Sinicropi (Alby’s medical-causation expert). The jury returned a special verdict in Alby’s favor, finding that BNSF violated the LIA and that the violations caused, in whole or in part, Alby’s back injury. The jury also found that BNSF did not violate any federal track regulations and was not negligent. The jury awarded Alby $1,888,264.90 in damages. The district court ordered collateral offsets to the award and ruled that the federal postjudgment interest rate is applicable to the resulting judgment of $1,524,663.79.

BNSF moved for judgment as a matter of law (JMOL) and, in the alternative, a new trial. The district court granted JMOL to BNSF, vacated the judgment in favor of Alby, and dismissed Alby’s claims. The court also denied BNSF’s motion for a new trial.

This appeal follows.


I. Did the district court err by granting JMOL to BNSF?

II. Did the district court err by concluding that the federal postjudgment interest rate applies?

III. Did the district court abuse its discretion by denying BNSF’s motion for a new trial?



Although the district court agreed with the jury’s special verdict—that BNSF violated the LIA by using faulty shock absorbers and seats in the locomotives in which Alby rode—the court granted JMOL to BNSF, concluding that Alby had failed to establish causation between BNSF’s LIA violations and his injuries. Alby argues that the district court erred by granting BNSF’s motion. A district court should grant JMOL

only in those unequivocal cases where (1) in light of the evidence as a whole, it would clearly be the duty of the district court to set aside a contrary verdict as being manifestly against the entire evidence, or where (2) it would be contrary to the law applicable to the case.
918 N.W.2d 566

Jerry’s Enters., Inc., v. Larkin, Hoffman, Daly & Lindgren, Ltd. , 711 N.W.2d 811, 816 (Minn. 2006) (quotation omitted); Diesen v. Hessburg , 455 N.W.2d 446, 452 (Minn. 1990) (stating that district court should not grant JMOL unless the evidence is practically conclusive against the verdict and reasonable minds can reach only one conclusion or when the jury’s findings are contrary to the law applicable in the case).

"A motion for judgment as a matter of law is reviewed de novo." Daly v. McFarland , 812 N.W.2d 113, 119 (Minn. 2012). Appellate courts do not set aside a jury’s verdict "if it can be sustained on any reasonable theory of the evidence." Pouliot v. Fitzsimmons , 582 N.W.2d 221, 224 (Minn. 1998). "Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party, [an appellate] court makes an independent determination of whether there is sufficient evidence to present an issue of fact for the jury." Jerry’s Enters. , 711 N.W.2d at 816.

Alby’s claim originates under FELA. "Under FELA, a railroad ‘shall be liable in damages to any employee suffering injury from the negligence’ of the railroad or its employees." Kinworthy v. Soo Line R.R. , 860 N.W.2d 355, 357 (Minn. 2015) (quoting 45 U.S.C. § 51 ). A "railroad employee may bring a FELA claim in either state or federal court." Id. ; see 45 U.S.C. § 56 (2012) ("The jurisdiction of the courts of the United States under this chapter shall be concurrent with that of the courts of the several States."). FELA provides that " ‘[e]very common carrier by railroad ... shall be liable in damages to any person suffering injury while he is employed by such carrier ... for such injury or death resulting in whole or in part from the negligence of any of the officers, agents, or employees of such carrier.’ " CSX Transp., Inc. v. McBride , 564 U.S. 685, 691, 131 S.Ct. 2630, 2636, 180 L.Ed.2d 637 (2011) (quoting 45 U.S.C. § 51 ). FELA’s causation language "is as broad as could be framed," and the Supreme Court has "recognized that, in comparison to tort litigation at common law, a relaxed standard of causation applies under FELA." Id . at 691–92, 131 S.Ct. at 2636 (quotations omitted).

FELA allows a railroad employee to bring a claim for a violation of the LIA, which imposes a duty to provide safe equipment on interstate railroads but does not provide a right of action to injured employees. Kinworthy v. Soo Line R.R. , 841 N.W.2d 363, 365 n.1 (Minn. App. 2013) (citing Urie v. Thompson , 337 U.S. 163, 188–89, 69 S.Ct. 1018, 1033–34, 93 L.Ed. 1282 (1949) ), aff'd , 860 N.W.2d 355 (Minn. 2015). The LIA prohibits the use of a locomotive unless it "and its parts and appurtenances (1) are in proper condition and safe to operate without unnecessary danger of personal injury." 49 U.S.C. § 20701. "Proof of an LIA violation is sufficient to establish negligence as a matter of law under FELA." Kinworthy , 841 N.W.2d at 365 n.1.

If an employee can prove negligence and that the railroad’s negligence "played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury, then the carrier is answerable in damages," even if the injury or manner in which it occurred was not "probable or foreseeable." McBride , 564 U.S. at 703–04, 131 S.Ct. at 2643 (quotations, citations, and emphasis omitted); see, e.g. , Rogers v. Missouri Pacific R.R. , 352 U.S. 500, 501–02, 77 S.Ct. 443, 446, 1 L.Ed.2d 493 (1957) (affirming jury verdict in FELA action when employee was injured after slipping while clearing brush away from tracks and attempting to escape flames that a passing train blew in his direction);

918 N.W.2d 567

Gallick v. Baltimore & Ohio R.R. , 372 U.S. 108, 109, 83 S.Ct. 659, 661, 9 L.Ed.2d 618 (1963) (affirming jury verdict in FELA action when employee had leg amputated from bug bite infected by fetid pool that railroad allowed to accumulate near its right-of-way).

Here, the jury found that BNSF violated the LIA and that the violation was "a cause, in whole or in part, of Mr. Alby’s back injury." Following BNSF’s posttrial motion for JMOL, the district court agreed that BNSF violated the LIA by using ineffective seats and shock absorbers but concluded that "several substantial defects in Alby’s evidence of causation" existed. For example, the court noted that Alby’s medical-causation expert, Dr. Sinicropi, failed to provide the necessary causation evidence for Alby to succeed with his claim because he "never tied the specific LIA violations" to Alby’s injuries. The court also discredited Dr. Sinicropi’s testimony for lacking proper foundation because he allegedly depended on "common sense" rather than his expert qualifications to form his opinion and because he did not perform a differential etiology to help form his opinion. Alby argues that he presented ample evidence to support the jury’s verdict that BNSF’s LIA violations caused in whole, or in part, his injuries. We agree.

The Supreme Court established a "relaxed standard of causation" in Rogers , explaining that in FELA cases, "the test of a jury case is simply whether the proofs justify with reason the conclusion that employer negligence played any part, ...

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4 cases
  • Alby v. BNSF Ry. Co., A17-1242
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Minnesota (US)
    • October 30, 2019
    ...1(c)(2) (2018). The court of appeals affirmed the district court’s use of the federal postjudgment interest rate. Alby v. BNSF Ry. Co. , 918 N.W.2d 562, 569 (Minn. App. 2018).The decision to use the federal interest rate is significant. Postjudgment interest on the judgment awarded to Alby ......
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    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. United States District Court of Minnesota
    • September 26, 2019
    ...the rate of postjudgment interest in this case. Mobil Expl. & Producing N. Am., Inc., 910 F.3d at 509; cf. Alby v. BNSF Railway Co., 918 N.W.2d 562, 569 (Minn. Ct. App. 2018) (concluding that postjudgment interest is "substantive" for FELA claims because it constitutes a proper measure of d......
  • Kowalewski v. BNSF Ry. Co., A18-0559
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Minnesota
    • April 22, 2019
    ...rather than the federal rate to calculate post-judgment interest. "We review de novo whether FELA preempts state law." Alby v. BNSF Ry., 918 N.W.2d 562, 569 (Minn. App. 2018), review granted (Minn. Oct. 16, 2018). In Alby, this court recently affirmed the application of the federal rate in ......
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    • August 12, 2019
    ...Stat. § 604.14. A district court's decision to deny a motion for judgment as a matter of law is reviewed de novo. Alby v. BNSF Ry. Co., 918 N.W.2d 562, 566 (Minn. App. 2018), review granted (Minn. Oct. 16, 2018).Page 4 The civil-theft statute provides that a person "who steals personal prop......

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