U.S. Appeals Court Finds for Railroad Worker Injured at Jobsite; Lynch v. N.E. Regional Commuter R.R. Corp.

Renardo Lynch was working as a mechanic for Metra when the top rail of a chain-link fence he was installing fell on him. He injured the back of his neck and shoulders. In a lawsuit that was filed under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. 51, (FELA), the lower court granted a summary judgment motion brought by Metra. Lynch took this appeal to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

Lynch was hired by Metra in 1987 in the track department but was moved to bridges and building where he held a number of different positions. When Lynch was injured, he was working as a bridge and building mechanic. Part of that job was installing fences at railroad crossings and depots. Although Metra did provide some training regarding these duties, no training was given to Lynch in installing fencing.

The installation of fences was a routine job done several times per month. When Lynch was injured, he was being assisted by a co-worker installing the mesh part of the fence; they were on their knees next to each other tightening brackets at the bottom of the fence post. The top rail of the fence fell, hitting Lynch across the back of his neck and shoulders. Lynch missed 28-30 days of work. Metra acknowledged that there was nothing Lynch or his co-workers did to cause the pole to fall.

The district court acknowledged that an employee under FELA will survive summary judgment if the evidence leads to the conclusion that the employer’s negligence played any part in producing the injury. That means that under FELA, an employer could be liable for its negligence, even if the injured worker is even more negligent. Metra moved for summary judgment on the basis that Lynch failed to demonstrate a breach of due care, although the court assumed that Lynch had in fact presented sufficient evidence of a breach of its duty to provide a reasonably safe workplace with proper training.

However, the court instead granted summary judgment in favor of Metra on the issue of causation, holding that Lynch’s theory that the top rail was cut too short or improperly installed rested on speculation or guess, not the facts. The district court said Lynch failed to introduce evidence of the measurement of the top rail and the distance between the fence posts. The district court also chose not to consider Lynch’s co-worker’s testimony because he was not an expert.

On appeal, Lynch argued that the lower court was wrong in granting summary judgment on a basis not even asserted by Metra; causation. Metra moved for summary judgment on the ground that Lynch failed to demonstrate negligence and that he did not demonstrate a breach of duty because Metra lacked actual or constructive notice of a defect that caused Lynch’s injuries. Here, the district court granted summary judgment on causation, which wasn’t raised by Metra.

FELA was enacted in response to the dangers of working for the railroad and the high rate of injuries among railroad employees. Consolidated Rail Corp. v. Gottshal, 512 U.S. 532 (1994). The burden of proof under FELA for plaintiffs is significantly lighter than in an ordinary negligence claim. Green v. CSX Transportation, Inc., 414 F.3d 758, 766 (7th Cir. 2005). There is no contributory negligence or assumption of risk in FELA cases. In fact, railroads are liable for a worker’s injury if the carrier’s negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury. CSX Transportation, Inc. v. McBride, 131 S.Ct. 2630, 2634 (2011).

On appeal, the only issue presented to the 7th Circuit was whether the district court properly granted summary judgment as to Lynch’s failure to raise a genuine issue of fact as to causation. Metra did not argue that summary judgment should be held based on other grounds, such as duty, breach or foreseeability.

Based upon the facts and evidence in the case, the court of appeals held that there was sufficient evidence to present a genuine issue of fact concerning causation. From the testimony it considered, the court said that a jury could reasonably conclude that the top rail of the fence fell out because it was either cut too short or improperly tightened in the cup by a Metra employee.

This defect could have been discovered if a Metra employee had inspected the top rail after it was installed and before the next phase. It was further held that the district court erred in dismissing the testimony of the co-worker as speculative. Therefore, Lynch adequately raised genuine issues of material fact as to negligence as required under FELA. For that reason and others, the district court’s decision granting summary judgment was vacated and the case was remanded for further proceedings back to the district court.

Renardo Lynch v. N.E. Regional Commuter R.R. Corp., d/b/a Metra/Metropolitan Rail, No. 11-2173 (7th Cir. October 29, 2012).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling worker injuries, construction injuries, truck accident cases, automobile accident cases and nursing home abuse cases for individuals and families for more than 36 years, in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Des Plaines, Norridge, Harwood Heights, Chicago (Lincoln Square), Melrose Park, Bensenville, Brookfield, Chicago (Hegewisch), Dolton, Justice and Western Springs, Ill.

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