Collins v. National R.R. Passenger Corp.

Decision Date27 August 2009
Docket NumberNo. 2154, September Term, 2006.,2154, September Term, 2006.
PartiesMichele COLLINS v. NATIONAL RAILROAD PASSENGER CORPORATION.
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

P. Matthew Darby (Guy M. Albertini, Albertini & Darby, LLP, on brief), Baltimore, for Appellant.

Stephen Caplis, Emily Daneker (Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, on brief), Baltimore, for Appellee.

Panel: MEREDITH, WOODWARD and CHARLES E. MOYLAN, JR., (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.

WOODWARD, J.

This case arises from a tragic accident that led to the death of thirty-five year old Robert Collins ("the Decedent"). In the early morning hours of February 17, 2005, just south of Havre de Grace, Maryland, the Decedent was working as an Electric Traction Lineman for appellee/cross-appellant, National Railroad Passenger Corporation ("Amtrak"), as a member of a five-man crew headquartered out of Amtrak's Perryville Maintenance of Way Base. At approximately 3:56 a.m., the Decedent sustained severe electrical burns on approximately 60 percent of his body when he was on top of a catenary maintenance vehicle and came in contact with the energized pantograph.1 The Decedent was transferred by a Maryland State Police Medivac crew to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Burn Center, where he passed away on February 21, 2005.

Appellant/cross-appellee, Michele Collins ("Collins"), the Decedent's surviving spouse, filed suit under the Federal Employers' Liability Act ("FELA"), 45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq., and the Locomotive Inspection Act ("LIA"), 49 U.S.C. § 20701 et seq., asserting claims of negligence and strict liability, respectively, against Amtrak. After a five-day trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Amtrak.

On appeal, Collins presents three questions for our review, which we have rephrased:

1. Did the trial court abuse its discretion in not instructing the jury that assumption of risk is not a defense to a claim arising under the FELA?

2. Did the trial court err in granting partial summary judgment in favor of Amtrak on Collins' claim arising under the LIA?

3. Did the trial court abuse its discretion in not admitting statements from a transcript of a conversation between Amtrak employees?

We answer "No" to each question and, accordingly, shall affirm the judgment of the circuit court.2

BACKGROUND

The Decedent began working for Amtrak in November 1997 as an Electric Traction Lineman at Amtrak's Mid-Atlantic Division-South, which covered the Baltimore and Perryville area. Such work entailed maintenance and construction of the overhead catenary system, substations, and supply stations along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. Normally, about 12,000 volts of electricity travel through the catenary system, powering the trains along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor.

Crews of Amtrak employees, each directed by a "gang foreman," maintain the catenary system. The Decedent was a member of a five-man crew, or "gang," designated D-126, headquartered at Amtrak's Perryville Maintenance of Way Base. The gang worked during the hours of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., Monday through Friday.

One means of maintaining the catenary system requires measuring the alignment of the overhead contact wire using a catenary maintenance vehicle ("Cat Car"). The Cat Car is a diesel-powered rail car and is used to take alignment readings usually under a de-energized catenary system. The roof of the Cat Car is equipped with a pantograph, which is raised to the overhead contact wire of the catenary system to assist in taking alignment readings of the wire. When attached to an energized contact wire, however, the pantograph collects power, becoming part of the energized catenary system.3 After being detached and lowered from the energized contact wire, the pantograph is de-energized. When it is not in use, the pantograph is secured with an automatic hold-down latch. Additionally, in the Decedent's gang, the pantograph was tied down with a rope as an added means of securing it in the lowered position.

On February 16, 2005, the Decedent's crew started to work at about 10:00 p.m. In addition to the Decedent, the gang included Thomas Boone, the Gang Foreman; George Breder, the Cat Car Operator; Jack Backert, an Electric Traction Lineman; and Bryan Marshall, an Electric Traction Lineman Trainee.

Initially, the crew was assigned to perform routine catenary maintenance work on a section of the catenary system. The Decedent was designated the "A-man" at the start of this shift. As the A-man, it was the Decedent's responsibility to coordinate the removal of power in the area where the crew worked. Prior to performing their work, the pantograph was raised, attaching it to the contact wire, which was de-energized at the time. At approximately 2:40 a.m. on February 17, 2005, the crew was asked to leave the area. A Norfolk-Southern freight train broke down near the crew's work site, necessitating that the track occupied by the Cat Car be cleared, so that the railroad could be opened to service the disabled freight train. Boone lowered the pantograph and Collins tied it down. The power to the catenary lines was then restored.

The crew was diverted to the Aberdeen area, where they stayed for about 45 minutes until they were requested to conduct further alignment readings of the catenary system. The readings were to be taken over the distance of about 1500 feet, or five catenary poles ("cat poles").4 Because the work was going to be done under energized catenary wires, Boone conducted a safety briefing before the crew set out to complete the readings.

After the alignment readings were finished, the crew observed a bright flash, followed by an explosion and a thump on the Cat Car roof. Boone testified that he immediately took a head count and did not see the Decedent. He explained that, "[j]ust from hearing the explosion and seeing the sky light up, [he] knew what it was." Boone ran to the top of the Cat Car where he found the Decedent lying "between the pantograph and the railing of the [Cat Car]" with his body "in flames" and "screaming for help." Boone proceeded to put out the flames on the Decedent's body with a fire extinguisher. According to Boone, the Decedent's clothes "had been burned completely off."

It was later determined that at approximately 3:56 a.m. the Decedent sustained severe electrical burns on approximately 60 percent of his body when he came in contact with the energized pantograph while on top of the Cat Car. The Decedent had climbed on top of the roof of the Cat Car without direction from the gang or Boone and without the knowledge of any of his gang members. Amtrak's Accident Investigation Report stated, and the testimony at trial confirmed, that, other than to tie down the pantograph, there was no reason for the Decedent to have gone on top of the Cat Car at that particular time. Because the members of the gang were in the cabin of the Cat Car at the time that the Decedent went up on the roof, there were no eyewitnesses to the accident.

Lowering the pantograph requires communication between the A-man and the Cat Car Operator. Two methods of lowering the pantograph were used by crews in the Mid-Atlantic Division-South: (1) While at the top of the steps or on the roof, the A-man would yell to the Cat Car operator to lower the pantograph; or (2) the A-man would stomp on the roof of the Cat Car near the pantograph above the Cat Car Operator's controls.5 The second method required the A-man to straddle a removable railing located on the Cat Car roof. Evidence of the Decedent's injuries suggested that he was in this position at the time that he sustained his injuries, because the Decedent suffered severe burn marks in his right wrist and groin area, which was consistent with straddling (and thus contacting) the movable railing and simultaneously contacting the energized pantograph with his right wrist. Burn marks were also found on the removable railing.

Following the accident, the Decedent was transported by a Maryland State Police Medivac crew to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Burn Center where he passed away on February 21, 2005, at approximately 2:15 p.m. following the removal of life-support systems.

Collins filed suit under the FELA and LIA, asserting claims of negligence and strict liability, respectively, against Amtrak.

FELA and LIA are remedial and humanitarian statutes that impose two separate types of liability to protect the safety of railroad employees. FELA permits railroad workers to recover for injuries caused by the negligence of their employers or fellow employees. LIA, on the other hand, imposes an absolute duty on railroad carriers to ensure that their locomotives are both properly maintained and safe to operate. Because LIA does not create an independent cause of action, such a claim must be brought under FELA.

Matson v. Burlington N. Santa Fe R.R., 240 F.3d 1233, 1235 (10th Cir.2001) (citations

omitted) (internal quotations omitted).

On June 5, 2006, Amtrak filed a motion for partial summary judgment on Collins' claim arising under the LIA, asserting that the Cat Car is not a locomotive and thus the LIA is inapplicable to Collins' claim under that statute. On July 14, 2006, the court granted Amtrak's partial motion for summary judgment on the LIA claim.

A five-day jury trial was conducted from August 14 to 18, 2006, and resulted in a verdict in favor of Amtrak. This timely appeal followed. We will set forth additional facts and proceedings below as necessary to discuss the questions presented.

DISCUSSION
I. Assumption of Risk Jury Instruction

In 1906, Congress passed the FELA "in part to eliminate barriers common law courts erected to protect railroad companies and other common carriers from liability for their employees' workplace injuries." Fashauer v. N.J. Transit Rail Operations, Inc., 57 F.3d 1269, 1274 (3d Cir.1995). The FELA "substituted comparative negligence for the strict rule of contributory negligence." Id. (internal quotations omitted). Followin...

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2 cases
  • Collins v. Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp.
    • United States
    • Maryland Court of Appeals
    • 1 décembre 2010
    ...that [Petitioner] should not recover because [the Decedent] assumed the risk of the incident." Collins v. Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp., 187 Md.App. 295, 307, 978 A.2d 822, 829 (Md.Ct.Spec.App.2009). Amtrak filed a conditional cross-appeal requesting that the intermediate appellate court revie......
  • Collins v. National R.R., Pet. Docket No. 400.
    • United States
    • Court of Special Appeals of Maryland
    • 9 décembre 2009

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