Ocasio v. Amtrak

Decision Date27 March 1997
Citation299 N.J.Super. 139,690 A.2d 682
PartiesEdwin OCASIO and Seyda Mohammad, by her g/a/l Maria Ocasio, Plaintiffs-Respondents-Cross-Appellants, v. AMTRAK, New Jersey Transit Authority Bus Company and Donald Reed, Defendants-Appellants-Cross-Respondents, and Val Welding Corporation, Defendant.
CourtNew Jersey Superior Court — Appellate Division

Jennine DiSomma, Newark, for defendants-appellants-cross-respondents (Saiber, Schlesinger, Satz & Goldstein, attorneys; Ms. DiSomma, of counsel, and on the brief; Robert B. Nussbaum, Newark, and Deborah J. Fennelly, Edison, on the brief).

David P. Corrigan, Middletown, for plaintiffs-respondents-cross-appellants (Giordano, Halleran & Ciesla, attorneys; Mr. Corrigan and Norman M. Hobbie, of counsel, and on the brief; Charles A. Cerussi, on the brief).

Before Judges LONG, SKILLMAN and RODRIGUEZ.

The opinion of the court was delivered by

SKILLMAN, J.A.D.

This appeal requires us to decide whether a railroad may be held liable for failing to take easy and inexpensive measures to block access to stairways leading to an abandoned railroad station which it should anticipate will be used as a shortcut to cross its tracks. We also must decide whether a plaintiff in a personal injury action who seeks damages for loss of enjoyment of life may prevent the jury from hearing evidence that he was suffering from a long-term addiction to drugs at the time of the accident.

During the evening of November 30, 1990, plaintiff Edwin Ocasio was struck by a train while walking on elevated railroad tracks in the City of Newark. Ocasio has remained comatose since the accident.

This action was brought by Ocasio and his daughter Seyda Mohammed, through her guardian ad litem, against Amtrak, which owned and maintained the elevated tracks, NJ Transit, which operated the train that struck Ocasio, and Donald Reed, who was the train's engineer. 1 In their answer, defendants raised various defenses, including Ocasio's comparative negligence in trespassing upon the railroad tracks.

Plaintiffs' primary theory of liability against Amtrak was that it negligently failed to prevent pedestrians from gaining access to the elevated tracks by means of stairways leading to the old South Street Station, which had been closed for almost forty years. Plaintiffs presented evidence showing that one stairway provided unimpeded access to the tracks and that a second stairway on the opposite side of the tracks had only a three foot to three-and-a-half foot high railing at the top of the stairs that could be easily stepped over. Plaintiff also presented evidence that there is a third stairway with an adjoining direct pathway approximately 500 feet from the South Street Station, which leads to an area of tracks near the South Street Bridge. Plaintiffs' expert testified that Amtrak could have easily and inexpensively blocked the access to the railroad tracks provided by these three unused stairways. In addition, plaintiffs presented evidence that twenty-four reports were filed with Amtrak during the two-year period preceding the accident of trespassing in the area where Ocasio's accident occurred.

Plaintiffs' theory of liability against NJ Transit and Reed was that Reed failed to exercise due care in operating the train. Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that Reed failed to make proper observations of the tracks, as a result of which he failed to discover Ocasio's presence at a time when he could have sounded the train's horn and given Ocasio sufficient warning to move before the train struck him.

A jury found that Amtrak had been negligent and that its negligence had been a proximate cause of the accident. The jury also found that Ocasio had been negligent, and it apportioned 40% negligence to him. The jury further found that plaintiff suffered a total of $7,500,000 in damages--$6,000,000 for past and future medical expenses and $1,500,000 for loss of enjoyment of life. The court molded this verdict and entered judgment against Amtrak for $4,500,000 together with prejudgment interest. The jury found that Reed had not been negligent, and the court entered judgment in favor of Reed and NJ Transit. The court subsequently denied Amtrak's motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, in the alternative, a new trial.

Amtrak appeals from the jury's verdict, arguing that the trial court erred in (1) instructing the jury that Amtrak had a duty to exercise reasonable care for the safety of trespassers if it knew or had reason to know of their frequent presence; (2) failing to instruct the jury that any duty of reasonable care Amtrak might have was limited to warning trespassers of concealed dangers; (3) denying Amtrak's motion to dismiss on the ground that plaintiffs failed to show a proximate causal relationship between Amtrak's alleged negligence and Ocasio's accident; (4) improperly allowing plaintiffs to show the jury a "Day in the Life" video of Ocasio's present condition or, alternatively, in not giving a cautionary instruction regarding this video; and (5) improperly precluding Amtrak from introducing evidence concerning Ocasio's long-term drug addiction for the jury to consider in determining the amount of damages. Plaintiffs cross-appeal, arguing that if this court concludes that a new trial is required with respect to Amtrak's liability, a new trial also should be granted with respect to Reed's and NJ Transit's liability because the jury's finding that Reed was not negligent was against the weight of the evidence.

We conclude that the trial court correctly decided that Amtrak had a duty of reasonable care under the circumstances of this case and that it properly instructed the jury regarding this duty. We also conclude that plaintiffs presented sufficient circumstantial evidence of the existence of a proximate causal relationship between Amtrak's negligence and Ocasio's accident to warrant the submission of this issue to the jury. We further conclude that the court did not err in admitting the "Day in the Life" video of Ocasio's treatment. Consequently, we affirm the liability verdict against Amtrak and the money judgment for Ocasio's past and future medical expenses. However, we conclude that the court committed reversible error by prohibiting Amtrak from presenting evidence of Ocasio's drug addiction in connection with his damages claim for loss of enjoyment of life. Accordingly, we remand for entry of a judgment for $3,600,000, representing 60% of the jury verdict for past and future medical expenses, and for a new trial limited to Ocasio's damages claim for loss of enjoyment of life. Because plaintiffs only sought a new trial against Reed and NJ Transit in the event Amtrak obtained a new trial on liability, plaintiffs' cross appeal is dismissed.

I

In Renz v. Penn Cent. Corp., 87 N.J. 437, 435 A.2d 540 (1981), the Court held that the railroad immunity statute, N.J.S.A. 48:12- 152, does not provide a railroad with absolute immunity from a claim by a person who is struck by a train while walking or standing on the tracks. Instead, the statute constitutes a legislative determination that such conduct is "minimal or threshold negligence" which will bar recovery only if the trier of fact concludes that the plaintiff's negligence was greater than that of the railroad. Id. at 459-61, 435 A.2d 540. Although the Court did not determine the duty of care which a railroad owes to a trespasser, it noted that even though "[t]raditionally, a landowner owed no duty to a trespasser other than to refrain from acts wilfully injurious, ..., in the evolution of the common law of trespass some accommodation of negligence principles has occurred." Id. at 461, 435 A.2d 540. The Court also noted that "there has long been an established exception to the general rules governing landowner liability to trespassers, whereby property owners are subject to a higher standard of care when the property owned by the landowner can be classified as a dangerous instrumentality." Id. at 462, 435 A.2d 540.

Although the Supreme Court has not considered the duty of care which a railroad owes to a trespasser since it decided Renz, another panel of this court recently addressed the issue. In Boyd v. Conrail, 291 N.J.Super. 608, 677 A.2d 1182 (App.Div.1996), in which a child was injured by a train while using a railroad yard as a shortcut from his home to school, the court held that "because a reasonable jury could conclude that [the railroad] had reason to know of the presence of children both on the tracks and on the railroad cars," it owed a higher duty of care than merely to refrain from wilful or intentionally injurious conduct. Id. at 614, 677 A.2d 1182. The court ruled that plaintiff's claim was governed by section 334 of the second Restatement of Torts, dealing with "Activities Highly Dangerous to Constant Trespassers on Limited Area," which states:

A possessor of land who knows, or from facts within his knowledge should know, that trespassers constantly intrude upon a limited area thereof, is subject to liability for bodily harm there caused to them by his failure to carry on an activity involving a risk of death or serious bodily harm with reasonable care for their safety.

[Restatement (Second) of Torts § 334 (1976).]

The court noted that the rule set forth in section 334 "has most often been applied to railroads, and does not require resolution of the issue left open by our Supreme Court in Renz, supra, of whether or not a railroad is a dangerous instrumentality." Id. at 618, 677 A.2d 1182. Applying section 334, the court concluded that "[c]are commensurate with the risk of harm was required," ibid., and that the railroad could have satisfied this duty by "speaking to children at school, posting police officers during school times, erecting an overpass, installing barriers or the like." Id. at 618-19, 677 A.2d 1182.

The trial court in this case instructed the jury in the...

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    • June 23, 1998
    ... ... Writing for the court in Ocasio v. Amtrak, 299 N.J.Super. 139, 690 A.2d 682 (App.Div.1997), Judge Skillman explained: ... W]e conclude that even though the rules of landowners' ... ...
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    ... ... 455 (2017) ("[T]otal exclusion of evidence is error where prejudice can be minimized through limiting instructions or other means[.]" (citing Ocasio v. Amtrak , 299 N.J. Super. 139, 159-60 (App. Div. 1997))). Here, the trial judge did not consider any limiting instruction and excluded the file, ... ...
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