USDC-DNY Dismisses FELA Suit

Accident Not Foreseeable to Railroad and Inadmissible Expert Opinion

By: Christopher J. Hoare, Esq.

In a recently issued 2014 trial court decision, Mitchell v. Metro North Commuter Rail, the Court delivered a double win to the railroad defendant in a lawsuit filed by a Metro North car shop mechanic who allegedly bumped his head while walking past a passenger car inside the maintenance shop. After reviewing the relevant FELA case law, the Court found that despite the FELA’s “relaxed causation standard,” the plaintiff’s expert had issued a net opinion and that plaintiff could not prove negligence because his injuries were not foreseeable to his railroad employer.

Plaintiff was a 50 year old sheet metal worker who was ordered to rewire the center sill of a Metro North commuter car that was parked inside the car shop’s maintenance pit for repairs.  Because he had never rewired a center sill before, he testified that he walked to the other end of the shop to see how the sill on a similar passenger car parked in the shop was wired.  Upon returning to his assigned car, he allegedly slipped on water on the floor of the maintenance shop that was allegedly leaking from a bathroom on the commuter car and bumped his head.  Plaintiff had not begun his assigned task prior to his alleged accident.  Four (4) days passed before plaintiff reported his unwitnessed accident to his supervisor.  He was complaining of head and neck pain at the time.

Plaintiff’s expert on railroad safety practices opined that:

  1. Metro North should have been aware that the toilet on the passenger car parked inside its shop was leaking;
  2. the toilet reservoir should have been drained outside the maintenance shop before it was pulled inside the shop for repairs, and
  3. plaintiff’s accident would not have occurred if he had been properly trained in wiring by his railroad employer.

The railroad defendant attacked the qualifications and opinion of the plaintiff’s liability expert by pointing out that he had not conducted any scientific studies, nor referenced any research to support his conclusory opinion, nor permitted its verification by the defendant (the classic definition of an inadmissible “net expert opinion” which is inadmissible under Federal Rules of Evidence and U.S. Supreme Court decisions).   Metro North also argued that the possibility that plaintiff would not have watched where he was walking before bumping his own head was not foreseeable.

In his opposition to Metro North’s Motion for Summary Judgment, plaintiff’s counsel relied on the FELA’s non-delegable duty to provide rail workers with a reasonably safe place to work and the “relatively relaxed standard of causation” between the railroad’s breach of its duty of care and damages under the FELA.

The court rejected both arguments and noted that plaintiff had not begun making his assigned repairs prior to his alleged injury.  It also noted that plaintiff had not made any complaints about the presence of toilet water on the floor of the shop prior to the accident.  It also held that although “negligence no matter how small” is the FELA standard of causation, the FELA still required the plaintiff to prove foreseeability of his injury by his railroad employer.  In a well worded opinion, the court barred the plaintiff’s expert as a net opinion and dismissed plaintiff’s case against his railroad employer without a trial.

This case illustrates that FELA lawsuits are absolutely defensible.  An effective defense of a FELA lawsuit begins with the consultation of an experienced FELA defense specialist who understands the law and can apply important defenses to the evidence.