A Chicago jury awarded a train engineer damages for an injury he sustained while operating a Metra train; Clarence Hatchett v. Metra, 09 L 5185. The award came after a Cook County injury trial in which the railroad attempted to prove the train engineer was at fault for his own injury, a theory that the jury seemed to agree with – it apportioned 70% of the train accident to the engineer.
The train injury took place in January 2009, while the plaintiff, Clarence Hatchett, was employed by Metra Rail. Hatchett was about to depart from Chicago’s Union Station on Metra’s Milwaukee District North Central Line when he did what many driver’s do before departing- he tried to adjust his engineer’s seat.
At the Cook County trial Hatchett explained that he determines his seat back position based on his ability to easily reach the automatic break. However, Hatchett was unable to reach his ideal seat position because the seat back was stuck in a forward position, leaving him roughly six inches further forward than he would have liked. However, Hatchett made no further attempts to adjust the stuck train seat and departed from Union Station.
As Hatchett’s train approached the line’s track crossovers located near Franklin Park, he needed to reach back to apply the automatic break. As he did so, Hatchett heard a loud pop and felt immediate pain in his left shoulder. A later diagnosis revealed that Hatchett had sustained from a torn tendon in his left rotator cuff, for which he would require a total shoulder replacement.
Despite the prior existence of Grade III and Grade IV shoulder injuries, Hatchett attributed the rotator cuff tear to the pop he heard while reaching for the automatic break. He brought a FELA lawsuit against his employer, Metra, for the medical bills related to the injury, his lost time from work, and general pain and suffering.
While employees are typically barred from directly suing their employers for work injuries, Hatchett was able to do so under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA). Rather than being governed by typical workers’ compensation rules, railroads are ruled by FELA laws. According to FELA, not only can employees sue his/her employer for a work-related injury, but then do not have to contend with contributory fault as a complete defense.
While most Illinois personal injury laws provide that if a plaintiff is found to be more than 50% responsible for his/her own injury, then the defense does not have to pay any portion of the damages. However, under FELA because there are no provisions for contributory fault as a complete defense. Instead, FELA provides for the proportionate reduction of damages based on the extent of the employee’s contributory negligence. Therefore, even if the plaintiff is found to be more than 50% responsible for his/her own injuries, then the defense may still have to pay a portion of the damages.
The defendant railroad attempted to show that Hatchett was completely at fault for his own work injury. The defense argued that Hatchett’s seat was not irrevocable stuck, but could have been easily fixed at Union Station if Hatchett had simply asked for assistance. It argued that if Hatchett had called a Metra employee, he/she would have likely been able to help Hatchett adjust his engineer seat by adjusting the wall channel to which the seats were attached via brackets; Hatchett testified he was not aware this was a seat adjustment method and so did not try this prior to leaving the station.
Furthermore, Metra contested the nature and extent of Hatchett’s injuries. It argued that the severity of Hatchett’s injuries could not have been accomplished by simply reaching back a further six inches to apply the automatic break. Instead, the defense argued that the need for a future shoulder replacement was completely due to Hatchett’s pre-existing degenerative arthritic shoulder and not at all attributable to his January 2009 work injury.
After reviewing the case facts, the jury returned a $231,576 verdict in favor of the plaintiff. The award was made up of the following damages:
• $98,000 for future loss of wages;
• $62,576 for past wage losses;
• $32,000 future pain and suffering;
• $25,000 for past pain and suffering; and
• $14,000 future medical expenses.
However, the jury also found Hatchett 70% at fault for his own injury, which in turn reduced the $231,576 verdict by 70%, leaving Hatchett with a $69,473 verdict. Again, while the apportionment of fault allowed Metra to pay a much reduced verdict, it still had to pay damages despite the plaintiff being found to have been over 50% responsible for his own injuries.
Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois work injury lawsuits for individuals and families for more than 35 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and surrounding areas, including Chicago Heights, Brookfield, Cicero, Morton Grove, and Chicago’s Hyde Park.
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