No Fault for Plaintiff Affirmed

Where there was contradictory evidence regarding whether plaintiff followed certain braking procedures, but there was evidence that another employee did not follow lifting procedures at a railroad facility, a reasonable juror could have attributed no fault to plaintiff for an accident that occurred at the facility.

In Boyd v. BNSF Railway Company, No. W2017-02189-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 17, 2018), plaintiff worked at a railroad facility, and she “was crushed by a container box being lifted off of a holster truck.” Plaintiff had been driving the truck and had exited the truck when the other employee operating a crane began lifting the shipping container off the truck. When the entire truck started moving, plaintiff attempted to get back into the truck, but she was hit by the shipping container and seriously injured.

At trial, contrasting evidence was presented regarding the comparative fault of the parties involved. There was conflicting evidence regarding whether plaintiff set the brakes in her truck before getting out. She stated that she could not remember whether she did. The employee performing the lift presented contradictory testimony on the issue, testifying at trial that he got into the truck after the accident and set both brakes, but stating during his deposition that he did not even look at the brakes. A photograph from after the accident showed that one of the two brakes was set. The evidence showed that there was no written policy regarding setting the brakes before exiting the truck. In addition to the evidence about the brakes, witnesses testified that if the container had been picked up correctly, it would not have swung, drug the truck, and hit plaintiff. Records from the company showed that the employee performing the lift had never been officially certified as an operator for the crane he was using at the time.

At trial, the jury returned a verdict for plaintiff, finding plaintiff zero per cent at fault for the accident. Defendant appealed this ruling, arguing that the “failure to find plaintiff contributorily negligent was against the clear weight of the evidence.” The Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict, stating that “considering all of the evidence presented to it, a jury could reach the reasonable conclusion that Plaintiff—not [the other employee]—set the one brake and that [the other employee], as a result of his improper lift procedure, dragged the holster truck.” Accordingly, the finding that plaintiff was not at fault was affirmed.

The Court of Appeals also affirmed an award of $3,000,000 “for future pain and suffering damages.” The Court noted that plaintiff testified that the injuries and PTSD from the accident affected basically everything she does now, and that she suffers from “feeling[s] of vulnerability, her inability to sleep, and her general lack of enjoyment in everyday activities.” Her primary doctor also testified about her failure to return to her occupation, and another doctor testified that her injuries were permanent and would require long-term treatment. The pain and suffering verdict was thus affirmed.

In addition to the comparative fault and damages issues, the Court of Appeals also affirmed two evidentiary issues. First, the Court addressed defendant’s argument that the other employee’s entire deposition should have been allowed in, rather than just a portion used by plaintiff to impeach him on cross examination. The Court pointed out that the employee testified on direct examination to the same material contained in the part of the deposition that defendant had wanted to bring in, and that because of all the contradictions contained therein, it would have “neither clarif[ied] his trial testimony nor restore[d] his credibility,” as the “jury had already heard” the substance of the remainder of the deposition on direct. Accordingly, the court ruled that while it was error to not allow the remainder of the deposition in, such error was harmless. The Court also affirmed the trial court’s limitation on defendant’s expert testimony. Defendant’s expert was qualified in the area of “human factors,” which “involves the study of the capabilities and limitations of people as they interact with tools, technology, and their environment…” The Court of Appeals agreed that this expert offering an opinion “that the incident would have been avoided had Plaintiff followed the warning placard in the truck” about the brakes would have been outside the scope of his expertise.

One important note in this case is that, since it was a FELA case, it was decided under the federal standard of review rather than the state standard. Nonetheless, it serves as an example of a finding of no fault for plaintiff being affirmed in a case with evidence that could have gone either way.