Braddy v. Union Pacific R. Co.

Citation116 S.W.3d 645
Decision Date05 August 2003
Docket NumberNo. ED 81967.,ED 81967.
PartiesJames BRADDY, Respondent, v. UNION PACIFIC RAILROAD COMPANY, Appellant.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Missouri (US)

Stephen M. Buckley, St. Louis, MO, for appellant.

Michael A. Gross, St. Louis, MO, John P. Kujawski, O'Fallon, IL, for respondent.


The Union Pacific Railroad Company ("Union Pacific") appeals from the judgment of the trial court which granted the motion of James Braddy ("Braddy") for a new trial on the ground that the jury verdict in favor of Union Pacific on Braddy's negligence claim under the Federal Employer's Liability Act ("FELA") was against the weight of the evidence. Finding no error, we affirm.

In April 1999, Braddy worked as a carman painter for Union Pacific at the company's shop in DeSoto, Missouri. On April 14, 1999, he was working in a manual blast area, Blast 3, with Vern Slatton. They were using high-pressure hoses to spray steel shot at the ends and roof of a railroad car to prepare the car for painting. The car had initially been prepared for the blasting by carman preppers who covered portions of the car to protect it from the steel shot and checked the car for debris. It had also been through an automated blast prior to being treated by Braddy. The automated blast propelled steel shot at the cars to strip paint, rust and dirt off of them. This could result in loose debris, as could the manual blast process.

Braddy was touching up the interior of a railroad car with the manual blast and was bent over blowing steel shot out of the car. When he stood up, his right foot allegedly slipped on a loose piece of debris. This caused him to twist his back as he stood, resulting in a "popping" noise and pain in his back. Braddy did not fall or otherwise hit any part of his body on the railroad car. He completed his work on the car and went with Slatton to report the injury to his supervisor. Slatton testified that while walking to the supervisor's office, Braddy told him that he had slipped on a piece of debris while standing up, and this caused his injury. Braddy reported the injury to his supervisor, but declined medical attention at the time. He returned to work, blasting a final railroad car before the end of his shift. Braddy continued to work thereafter, apparently with some back pain, until April 26, 1999, when he went back to his supervisor to report that the pain had not improved and he planned to see a doctor. Braddy's supervisor told him to fill out an injury report, and Braddy initially completed a portion of the report in the office that same day. The next day, Braddy visited Dr. David Stronsky, an orthopedic surgeon. Dr. Stronsky's records indicate that Braddy informed him that while manually blasting a railroad car, he was "twisting hose around and back twisted, felt a pop, severe pain in low back[.]" There was no mention of slipping on debris in the records. After his visit to Dr. Stronsky, Braddy finished completing the injury report for Union Pacific. He listed the case of his injury as "while blowing shot out of the end of [a railroad car], back popped while in end of car." Braddy did not mention slipping on debris in the report, nor was it mentioned as the cause of injury in the records of Braddy's subsequent treating physician and physical therapist. However, in November 1999, Braddy saw a third physician, Dr. George Schoedinger. Braddy reported that his back injury resulted from "holding a sandblasting hose in a semi-flexed position, at which time he slipped on some steel shot and paint flecks and he twisted his low back and felt a pop in his low back and thereafter pain."

In March 2000, Braddy filed an action against Union Pacific under FELA, alleging that Union Pacific negligently caused him to injure himself while working as a carman painter. Brady's petition alleged he slipped on debris which should have been removed by the employees responsible for preparing the cars before they entered the manual blast area, which caused him to twist his back to prevent himself from falling. Braddy also alleged that the ventilation and lighting systems were inadequate, which caused reduced visibility and made his work area unsafe.

Evidence was presented at trial that Braddy slipped on debris that was at the end of the car he was working on. There was evidence that debris often remained on railroad cars when they entered the manual blast areas, that there had been previous complaints made to Union Pacific about such debris, and that Union Pacific had not adequately addressed such complaints. Though there was no substantial evidence adduced concerning inadequate lighting, there was evidence presented that the ventilation system was not adequate and contributed to visibility problems. Braddy also introduced evidence of his physical condition, medical condition, ability to work in the future, and the damages he claimed to have suffered as a result of his back injury.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of Union Pacific. Braddy filed motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict ("JNOV") and for a new trial. The trial court denied the motion for JNOV, but granted the motion for new trial on the ground that the jury's verdict in favor of Union Pacific was against the weight of the evidence. Union Pacific now appeals.

In its first point on appeal Union Pacific contends that the trial court erred in granting Braddy a new trial on the grounds that the jury's verdict in its favor was against the weight of the evidence. Union Pacific claims that the trial court had no discretion to grant Braddy a new trial because Braddy failed to make a submissible case.

In a FELA action, federal law governs the question of whether or not a plaintiff has met his burden in making a submissible case. Stewart v. Alton and Southern Ry. Co., 849 S.W.2d 119, 123 (Mo.App.1993). FELA is an avowed departure from the common law. Id. The test for submissibility in FELA is simply whether the proofs justify, with reason, the conclusion that the employer's negligence played any part, however slight, in causing the injury for which damages are sought. Id. It does not matter that the jury could, based on probability, attribute the injury to another cause. Id.

To establish a submissible case under FELA, Braddy had to show that Union Pacific had a duty to provide a reasonably safe work place, that lack of care played a part, however slight, in producing the injury, and that the injury was reasonably foreseeable. Id. at 124. There is no dispute that Union Pacific has a duty to provide a reasonably safe work place for its employees, including Braddy. Evidence was presented at trial of recurrent problems with debris on railroad cars as they came into the manual blast area for cleaning, and that Union Pacific was aware that this was an ongoing concern. Braddy himself testified about complaints concerning the debris on the railroad cars entering the manual blast areas, and other witnesses corroborated this testimony. Additionally, there was documentary evidence reflecting such complaints prior to the date of Braddy's injury. There was also evidence that there were ventilation problems that reduced visibility in the manual blast, that the high-pressure hose in Blast 3 was overly powerful, and that Union Pacific was aware of these problems. There was testimony that slipping on debris caused Braddy to twist and injure his back.

Because of the broad construction given FELA, the standard of proof for negligence is more relaxed. Briggs v. Kansas City Southern Railway Co., 925 S.W.2d 908, 913 (Mo.App.1996). A case should be submitted to the jury if there is any evidence to support the employer's negligence. Wilson v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 875 S.W.2d 178, 180 (Mo.App.1994). Here, as discussed above, there was evidence of negligence on the part of Union Pacific for failure to adequately address the complaints made regarding debris in the manual blast area. This debris purportedly caused Braddy to slip and twist and injure his back. There was also evidence that the ventilation system was inadequate and resulted in reduced visibility in the manual blast area. Thus, under the relaxed standard of proof for negligence in FELA cases, Braddy made a submissible case to the jury. Point denied.

In its second point on appeal, Union Pacific asserts that the trial court erred in granting Braddy a new trial on the ground that the jury's verdict in its favor was against the weight of the evidence because once a submissible case is made, federal law in FELA cases gives juries the exclusive right to decide the factual issues of causation and negligence and the trial court has no authority to overturn the jury's verdict.

In the ordinary civil case, under Rule 78.02 the trial court has broad discretionary power to grant one new trial on the basis that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence. O'Neal v. Agee, 8 S.W.3d 238, 241 (Mo.App.1999) Such a ruling will be reversed only in the event of a manifest abuse of discretion, as the trial court is in a superior position to weigh the evidence adduced at trial than appellate courts. Id. Provided that the plaintiff makes a submissible case, the trial court's grant of a motion for a new trial on this ground is virtually unfettered. Brown v. Lanrich, Inc., 950 S.W.2d 235, 236 (Mo. App.1997).

In reviewing FELA cases, Missouri courts are bound by the decisions of the United States Supreme Court. Heppner v. Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Co., 297 S.W.2d 497, 501 (Mo. banc 1956). However, Missouri courts may apply their own procedural rules, and a motion for new trial under Rule 78.01 is procedural. Zibung v. Union Pacific Railroad Co., 776 S.W.2d 4, 5 (Mo. banc 1989). The Missouri Supreme Court stated in Zibung that the trial court has the power to find that the jury verdict is against the weight of the evidence,...

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