Lahm v. Burlington Northern R. Co.

Decision Date25 November 1997
Docket NumberNo. A-95-1267,A-95-1267
Citation571 N.W.2d 126,6 Neb.App. 182
PartiesConnie L. LAHM, Appellant, v. BURLINGTON NORTHERN RAILROAD COMPANY, a Corporation, Appellee.
CourtNebraska Court of Appeals

Syllabus by the Court

1. Federal Acts: Damages: Limitations of Actions. The Federal Employers' Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq. (1994), provides that no action for recovery of damages may be maintained pursuant to the act unless commenced within 3 years from the date the cause of action accrues.

2. Federal Acts: Limitations of Actions. In actions arising under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, the "discovery" rule applies in determining when a cause of action accrues for purposes of the statute of limitations. As such, a cause of action accrues for purposes of the statute of limitations when a reasonable person knows, or in the course of exercising reasonable diligence should have known, of both the injury and its governing cause.

3. Negligence: Limitations of Actions. The determination of whether acts of alleged negligence occurred within the period of limitations is a task for the trier of fact.

4. Directed Verdict. A directed verdict is appropriate only where reasonable minds cannot differ and can draw but one conclusion from the evidence, where an issue should be decided as a matter of law.

5. Verdicts: Juries: Presumptions: Appeal and Error. The "general verdict" rule provides that where a general verdict is returned for one of the parties, and the mental processes of the jury are not tested by special interrogatories to indicate which issue was determinative of the verdict, it will be presumed that all issues were resolved in favor of the prevailing party, and, where a single determinative issue has been presented to the jury free from error, any error in presenting another issue will be disregarded.

6. Verdicts: Juries: Appeal and Error. A jury verdict will not be set aside unless clearly wrong, and it is sufficient if any competent evidence is presented to the jury upon which it could find for the successful party.

C. Marshall Friedman, P.C., Kenneth E. Rudd, Daniel J. Cohen, St. Louis, MO, Bret E. Taylor, Peoria, IL, and John J. Higgins, Omaha, for appellant.

Samantha B. Trimble, and, on brief, Terry C. Dougherty, of Knudsen, Berkheimer, Richardson, Endacott & Routh, Lincoln, for appellee.

HANNON, IRWIN, and INBODY, JJ.

IRWIN, Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

Connie L. Lahm brought this action seeking recovery for personal injuries allegedly caused by her employment with the Burlington Northern Railroad Company (BNRR), pursuant to the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq. (1994). At trial, a jury returned a general verdict for BNRR, and Lahm brings this appeal. On appeal, Lahm challenges various rulings made by the trial court, as well as the jury instructions submitted by the court. Because we find that the jury could reasonably have concluded from the evidence presented that Lahm's action was barred by the statute of limitations, we affirm.

II. BACKGROUND

During the late 1970's, Lahm was employed as a "carman" for BNRR. In November 1981, she was placed on furlough. In October 1987, Lahm received a recall notice from BNRR offering her the opportunity to return to work effective November 9, 1987. Lahm was initially assigned to a location known as Building 33 to complete an apprenticeship. In Building 33, Lahm engaged in welding, cutting with a torch, and grinding. The apprenticeship lasted until February 1988. Lahm spent several days doing airbrake work, also in Building 33, before receiving her carman "card" on February 8, 1988.

After becoming "carded," Lahm was assigned to a location known as "three line" to do welding work on railroad cars. Among her job duties was extensive welding and patching work. Additionally, Lahm did some grinding work in conjunction with her welding duties.

On approximately February 17, 1988, Lahm visited her family doctor, complaining of pain in her fingers, stinging and numbness in her hands and arms, and difficulty sleeping. Lahm's family doctor referred her to a specialist, a neurologist named "Dr. Richard C. Sposato," within approximately 1 to 2 weeks of her initial visit. Sposato diagnosed Lahm as suffering from bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, worse on her right side. On March 23, surgery was performed on Lahm's right wrist.

Lahm returned to light duty at BNRR, which still included welding responsibilities. On March 29, 1988, Lahm completed a personal injury report for BNRR, with the assistance of Marshall Tracy. Tracy actually filled out the report, under Lahm's direction, because Lahm's right wrist was still in a cast. On the personal injury report, in response to the "Date of Incident" inquiry, Lahm responded "on or about Jan[uary] 15." The report also indicated that Lahm's "Seniority Date" was "1-8-88," instead of the correct date of February 8. Tracy signed Lahm's name to the form, with Lahm's permission, and Lahm initialed the form, indicating "Permission Given to Marshall Tracy to fill out this form ... by Connie."

Lahm was eventually relocated at BNRR to a location known as the "truck station." At the truck station, Lahm operated a piece of machinery known as a hydraulic "gagger," which Lahm contends that she and her coworkers found never worked properly. In order to complete the job, Lahm often was required to strike the gagger repeatedly with a sledge hammer. Lahm continued working in the truck station for an extended period of time, until approximately November 1990.

In December 1988, Lahm had surgery on her left wrist. In May 1989, she began experiencing pain in the palm and fingers of her right hand, and her doctors concluded that she was suffering from a trauma known as tendosynovitis in her trigger finger. In October 1989, surgery was completed to relieve pressure in her wrist associated with the tendosynovitis.

On approximately October 23, 1990, Lahm was using a hammer when a fragment broke off of a block she was striking and struck her in the head. After the fragment was removed, Lahm returned to light duty at BNRR until she was removed from service on March 1, 1991. On July 3, 1991, she underwent another surgery on her right hand and wrist.

Lahm brought suit against BNRR in the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri, on February 8, 1991. In her petition filed in the district court for Douglas County, Nebraska, on July 27, 1992, Lahm alleges two counts: first, that she suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome which was caused or contributed to by her employment with BNRR; and second, that she suffered injuries when struck in the head by the block fragment. The only issues raised on this appeal concern the first count of Lahm's complaint, namely, the carpal tunnel syndrome allegations. We note that the parties have agreed in their pleadings that the lawsuit was commenced, for statute of limitations purposes, on February 8, 1991.

At trial, Lahm testified that she began developing symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome after becoming carded and being assigned to three line, sometime after February 8, 1988. However, during cross-examination, BNRR elicited testimony from Lahm that indicated she began developing symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome during her apprenticeship; specifically, that the symptoms began in January 1988 and that she was immediately aware that the symptoms were caused or contributed to by her employment. In addition, BNRR asserted in its answer that Lahm's suit was barred by the statute of limitations. BNRR further asserted that there was no negligence on its part and that Lahm's alleged injuries were caused solely by nonemployment factors.

During the jury instruction conference, BNRR sought a special verdict form which would require the jury to specifically answer, inter alia, whether the action was brought within the statute of limitations, whether BNRR was negligent, whether Lahm had proved causation, what the extent of the money damages would be, and whether the damages should be reduced because of a preexisting condition or failure to mitigate. Lahm strongly resisted the giving of a special verdict form, alleging that BNRR was attempting to place an undue emphasis on one part of Lahm's case, thereby causing the jury to focus unduly on the statute of limitations question. The court refused to give the special verdict form. The jury returned a general verdict in favor of BNRR. Lahm brings this timely appeal.

III. ASSIGNMENTS OF ERROR

On appeal, Lahm assigns various errors concerning rulings made by the trial court during the course of the trial, as well as the jury instructions given by the trial court. One of the issues Lahm raises on appeal is whether or not the trial court should have allowed the issue of the statute of limitations to go to the jury or whether the court should have granted Lahm a directed verdict on the issue. Because we conclude that the court properly overruled Lahm's motion for directed verdict on the statute of limitations issue and that the jury could reasonably have concluded that Lahm's claim was barred by the statute of limitations, we need not specifically address any of Lahm's other assigned errors.

IV. ANALYSIS
1. STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS

FELA provides that no action for recovery of damages may be maintained pursuant to FELA unless commenced within 3 years from the date the cause of action accrues. See 45 U.S.C. § 56. In FELA actions, the "discovery" rule applies in determining when a cause of action accrues for purposes of the statute of limitations. See, e.g., Monaghan v. Union Pacific RR. Co., 242 Neb. 720, 496 N.W.2d 895 (1993). As such, a cause of action accrues for purposes of the statute of limitations when a reasonable person knows, or in the course of exercising reasonable diligence should have known, of both the injury and its governing cause. Id. Both of these requirements, knowledge of the injury and knowledge of its governing cause, require an...

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