Rivera v. Union R. Co., No. 03-10534.

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
Writing for the CourtCarl E. Stewart
Citation378 F.3d 502
PartiesRene RIVERA, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. UNION PACIFIC RAILROAD CO., Defendant-Appellant.
Decision Date04 August 2004
Docket NumberNo. 03-10534.

Page 502

378 F.3d 502
Rene RIVERA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
UNION PACIFIC RAILROAD CO., Defendant-Appellant.
No. 03-10534.
United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit.
August 4, 2004.

Page 503

Clinard J. Hanby (argued), The Woodlands, TX, Robert Leonadis McKinney, Patrice McKinney, McKinney & McKinney, Houston, TX, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Kenneth John Bower (argued), Douglas W. Poole, Bryan R. Lasswell, McLeod, Alexander, Powel & Apffel, Galveston, TX, for Defendant-Appellant.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas.

Before BARKSDALE, EMILIO M. GARZA and STEWART, Circuit Judges.

CARL E. STEWART, Circuit Judge:


In this negligence action under the Federal Employer's Liability Act ("FELA"), Union Pacific Railroad Company ("Union Pacific") appeals the district court's denial of its alternative motions for judgment as a matter of law or new trial following a jury verdict in favor of railroad employee Rene Rivera on his personal injury claims. For the following reasons, we affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Rivera's FELA action against Union Pacific claimed that he sustained a herniated disk on July 17, 2001, as a result of the railroad's failure to provide him with a safe work place by assigning him to a task which it knew or should have known was beyond Rivera's physical capabilities. At

Page 504

the time of the incident in question, Rivera was employed by Union Pacific as a track welder. His job responsibilities included "destressing" rails, a process through which sections of the track that have bowed are restored to their original form in order to avoid derailments. Destressing involves cutting out small portions of the bowed rail, rewelding the rail, and smoothing the edges of the repaired section with a "rail shear." The physically demanding task requires repeated bending, stooping, pulling, pushing, and lifting loads weighing in excess of 10 to 15 pounds.

At some point in early June 2001, Rivera began noticing pain in his lower back and groin, which became progressively worse. On June 28, 2001, Rivera filled out an accident report and informed his supervisor, Leroy Nettles, that he was suffering from lower back and groin pain. That same day, Rivera went to Abilene Regional Hospital, where a doctor diagnosed his condition as "low back strain." Rivera's back and groin pain persisted. On July 3, 2001, Rivera sought advice from a chiropractor, who wrote a note recommending that Rivera be restricted to "moderate work status at this time ... [; n]o heavy lifting, pushing or pulling." The July 3 note further stated that Rivera was to "be re-evaluated in 10 to 14 days." When Rivera presented the note to Nettles, Nettles requested clarification of the term "moderate." Accordingly, Rivera returned to the chiropractor and obtained a second note dated July 5, 2001. That note restricted Rivera to 6 to 8 hours of work a day, and specified "No heavy lifting, pushing, or pulling (Not to exceed 10 to 15 pounds)." The note further stated that the restrictions "are expected to last until at least 7/17/01." Although Rivera testified that he showed Nettles the second note, Nettles denied that he ever saw it.

The following day, July 6, 2001, Rivera went to the emergency room in Abilene, where he was again diagnosed with low back strain. Dr. Lynn Barlow, who examined Rivera, gave him a note instructing that he (1) do no lifting for 5 days; (2) find a doctor for further care on "Monday," and (3) follow-up with a doctor if his groin pain persisted. Rivera testified that he gave the note to Nettles. At Nettles' urging, Rivera then decided to use the one week he had remaining of his vacation time to rest.

Rivera testified that upon his return to work on July 16, 2001, he informed Nettles that his back was "still sore." Though Nettles claimed at trial that Rivera said he felt "fine," Nettles also testified that he told Rivera that as far as he was concerned, Rivera was still on restricted duty. Nonetheless, according to Rivera, Nettles directed Rivera to "go to Ranger and destress a rail[;] there will be a gang out there to help you." Rivera did so, and worked a full day without incident. The next day, July 17, Nettles again assigned Rivera to a destressing project. During the course of this task, Rivera attempted to pick up a rail shear with the assistance of co-worker Mark Lucky. The rail shear weighed 35 pounds, but the pair had difficulty prying the shear from the track and had to pull on the shear. Rivera testified that at the moment the rail shear came loose, he "heard a loud pop noise" and felt sharp, burning pain in his lower back, causing him to collapse to the ground in pain. The other Union Pacific crew members improvised a back board and stretcher to carry Rivera to a crossing where he was met by an ambulance. At the hospital, Rivera was given steroid shots and released.

On July 30, 2001, Dr. Robert LeGrand, a neurosurgeon, diagnosed Rivera with a herniated disk between L5 and S1. Approximately

Page 505

six months later, after attempts at conservative treatment did not alleviate Rivera's condition, Dr. LeGrand performed surgery on Rivera's back.

On March 26, 2002, Rivera brought this FELA action against Union Pacific, seeking damages for his groin and back injury under a theory of negligent assignment. At trial, Union Pacific orally moved for judgment as a matter of law when Rivera rested and at the close of evidence, arguing that no evidence supported submission of the negligent-assignment issue to the jury "for the reason that there [was] no medical restriction" limiting Rivera on July 17, 2001. The district court denied both motions and submitted the issue to the jury. The jury found both sides negligent, attributing 95% fault to Union Pacific and the balance to Rivera, and awarded Rivera $1,196,020, primarily for lost earning capacity. Rivera moved for judgment for $1,048,420, conceding that there was no evidence supporting certain expenses for which the jury had awarded damages. Union Pacific renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law and alternatively moved for a new trial, asserting that it was not negligent, that Rivera had a herniated disk prior to the July 17 lifting incident, and that no evidence supported the jury's findings. The trial judge denied both motions and rendered judgment in the amount requested by Rivera, plus post-judgment interest at a 10% rate. The trial judge also denied Union Pacific's subsequent motion for a new trial, but granted the railroad's motion to modify the judgment and issued a nunc pro tunc judgment reducing post-judgment interest to 1.31%. Union Pacific timely filed notice of appeal.

DISCUSSION

On appeal, Union Pacific challenges the district court's denial of its alternative motions for judgment as a matter of law or new trial, arguing that the evidence is insufficient to sustain the jury's finding of FELA liability under the "negligent-assignment" doctrine. We affirm.

I. Standards of review

Preliminarily, the parties dispute the standard governing our review of the district court's denial of Union Pacific's motion for judgment as a matter of law. A court may enter judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50 only where there exists "no legally sufficient evidentiary basis" for the jury's verdict. FED. R. CIV. P. 50(a)(1); Vadie v. Mississippi State Univ., 218 F.3d 365, 372 (5th Cir.2000), cert. denied, 531 U.S. 1113, 121 S.Ct. 859, 148 L.Ed.2d 772 (2001). The standard for reviewing such motions is the same in the trial court and on appeal. Springborn v. American Commercial Barge Lines, Inc., 767 F.2d 89, 94 (5th Cir.1985) (citation omitted). In the FELA context, when a defendant challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support a plaintiff's verdict, we must affirm the denial of the defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law unless there is a complete absence of probative facts to support the conclusion reached by the jury. Lavender v. Kurn, 327 U.S. 645, 654, 66 S.Ct. 740, 90 L.Ed. 916 (1946); Wooden v. Missouri Pacific Railroad Co., 862 F.2d 560, 561 (5th Cir.1989) (applying the complete absence of evidence standard in a FELA case when reviewing the denial of a defendant's motion for a directed verdict under former Rule 50 (citing Allen v. Seacoast Products, Inc., 623 F.2d 355, 360 & nn. 5-6 (5th Cir.1980))); Davis v. Odeco, Inc., 18 F.3d 1237, 1243 (5th Cir.1994) (reviewing for complete absence of evidence the denial of a defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law in a case brought under the Jones Act, which fully incorporates the FELA's featherweight standard of review (citing Bommarito v.

Page 506

Penrod Drilling Corp., 929 F.2d 186, 188 (5th Cir.1991))); see Lane v. R.A. Sims, 241 F.3d 439, 445 (5th Cir.2001) (reviewing for complete absence of evidence the denial of a defendant's motion for judgment on its cross-claim against a co-defendant).

Union Pacific devotes a substantial amount of ink to its assertion that this Court should be guided by a reasonableness standard in deciding whether to uphold the jury's verdict. Although Union Pacific presents several variations of this argument, its contentions boil down to the view that the Boeing "substantial evidence" standard governs our review in this case. See Boeing v. Shipman, 411 F.2d 365, 374-75 (5th Cir.1969) (en banc) (providing that a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict should be granted only when the facts and inferences point so strongly and overwhelmingly in favor of a moving party that reasonable persons could not arrive at a contrary verdict), overruled on other grounds in Gautreaux v. Scurlock Marine, Inc., 107 F.3d 331, 335 (5th Cir.1997) (en banc). This argument is without merit. Our precedents clearly establish that in this Circuit, a judgment as a matter of law against the plaintiff in a FELA suit is appropriate "only when there is a complete absence of probative facts" supporting the plaintiff's...

To continue reading

Request your trial
53 practice notes
  • Tufariello v. Long Island R.R. Co., No. 03 CV 3520(CLP).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of New York)
    • 18 Marzo 2005
    ...FELA, which provides the exclusive remedy for plaintiff in this case. 45 U.S.C. §§ 51, et seq. See Rivera v. Union Pacific Railroad Co., 378 F.3d 502, 507 (5th Cir.2004); see also Lane v. R.A. Sims, Jr., Inc., 241 F.3d 439, 442 (5th Cir.2001); Dixon v. CSX Transp., Inc., 990 F.2d 1440, 1442......
  • Union Pac. R.R. Co. v. Nami, NO. 14–0901
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Texas
    • 24 Junio 2016
    ...rule in these cases for judging the sufficiency of the evidence on the issue of ‘causation.’ ”); Rivera v. Union Pac. R.R. Co., 378 F.3d 502, 507 (5th Cir.2004) (describing the evidentiary burden for causation under FELA as “featherweight”). At the same time, the evidentiary standard under ......
  • Ill. Cent. R.R. Co. v. Brent, NO. 2011-CA-01608-SCT
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
    • 21 Noviembre 2013
    ...5negligence. Hogue v. Southern Ry. Co., 390 U.S. 516, 517-518, 88 S. Ct. 1150, 20 L. Ed. 2d 73 (1968); Rivera v. Union Pacific R.R. Co., 378 F.3d 502, 507 (5th Cir. 2004). "What constitutes negligence for [FELA] purposes is a federal question, not varying in accordance with the differi......
  • Ill. Cent. R.R. Co. v. Brent, No. 2011–CA–01608–SCT.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
    • 27 Marzo 2014
    ...negligence. Hogue v. Southern Ry. Co., 390 U.S. 516, 517–518, 88 S.Ct. 1150, 20 L.Ed.2d 73 (1968); Rivera v. Union Pacific R.R. Co., 378 F.3d 502, 507 (5th Cir.2004). “What constitutes negligence for [FELA] purposes is a federal question, not varying in accordance with the differing concept......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
53 cases
  • Tufariello v. Long Island R.R. Co., No. 03 CV 3520(CLP).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of New York)
    • 18 Marzo 2005
    ...FELA, which provides the exclusive remedy for plaintiff in this case. 45 U.S.C. §§ 51, et seq. See Rivera v. Union Pacific Railroad Co., 378 F.3d 502, 507 (5th Cir.2004); see also Lane v. R.A. Sims, Jr., Inc., 241 F.3d 439, 442 (5th Cir.2001); Dixon v. CSX Transp., Inc., 990 F.2d 1440, 1442......
  • Union Pac. R.R. Co. v. Nami, NO. 14–0901
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Texas
    • 24 Junio 2016
    ...rule in these cases for judging the sufficiency of the evidence on the issue of ‘causation.’ ”); Rivera v. Union Pac. R.R. Co., 378 F.3d 502, 507 (5th Cir.2004) (describing the evidentiary burden for causation under FELA as “featherweight”). At the same time, the evidentiary standard under ......
  • Ill. Cent. R.R. Co. v. Brent, NO. 2011-CA-01608-SCT
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
    • 21 Noviembre 2013
    ...5negligence. Hogue v. Southern Ry. Co., 390 U.S. 516, 517-518, 88 S. Ct. 1150, 20 L. Ed. 2d 73 (1968); Rivera v. Union Pacific R.R. Co., 378 F.3d 502, 507 (5th Cir. 2004). "What constitutes negligence for [FELA] purposes is a federal question, not varying in accordance with the differi......
  • Ill. Cent. R.R. Co. v. Brent, No. 2011–CA–01608–SCT.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
    • 27 Marzo 2014
    ...negligence. Hogue v. Southern Ry. Co., 390 U.S. 516, 517–518, 88 S.Ct. 1150, 20 L.Ed.2d 73 (1968); Rivera v. Union Pacific R.R. Co., 378 F.3d 502, 507 (5th Cir.2004). “What constitutes negligence for [FELA] purposes is a federal question, not varying in accordance with the differing concept......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT