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Griffin v. Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad Corporation

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Fourth Division

May 29, 2018

MARTIN GRIFFIN, Appellant,
v.
DAKOTA, MINNESOTA & EASTERN RAILROAD CORPORATION, Respondent.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Livingston County, Missouri The Honorable Thomas N. Chapman, Judge

          Before Mark D. Pfeiffer, Chief Judge, and Anthony Rex Gabbert and Edward R. Ardini, Jr., Judges

          OPINION

          MARK D. PFEIFFER, CHIEF JUDGE.

         Mr. Martin Griffin ("Griffin") appeals from the entry of summary judgment by the Circuit Court of Livingston County, Missouri ("trial court"), on his Federal Employees Liability Act ("FELA") claim for work-related injuries against his former employer, Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad Corporation. We reverse and remand.

         Factual and Procedural Background[1]

         Griffin began his railroad employment in 1988, when the territory in which he worked was owned by the Soo Line Railroad. The territory has been owned by several other entities during Griffin's twenty-five-year railroad career, including I&M Rail Link ("EVIRL"), Iowa, Chicago & Eastern Railroad Company, and, most recently, Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad Corporation ("the Railroad"). Throughout Griffin's railroad career, he worked the same job with the same duties along the same territory for all the various entities that owned the territory. Griffin's job duties included operating a material truck and other equipment, performing track maintenance, including replacing ties, installing rail and ballast, and performing bridge work.

         On April 17, 2001, Griffin was pulling a railroad spike with a claw bar in the course of his employment for IMRL when the head of the spike broke off and he fell forward, jamming his neck and right shoulder (the "spike incident"). He also developed upper back pain. He was diagnosed as having sustained a herniated disc in his cervical spine and was treated for pain with physical therapy, prescription medications, and epidural injections. Because Griffin's pain from the spike incident did not resolve with conservative treatment, he underwent a cervical discectomy and fusion on September 9, 2003. The surgery did not provide him with complete relief, and he has had regular treatment for pain, including prescription medication and osteopathic manipulation therapy, since returning to work after the surgery. Over the years, he developed ongoing neck pain from degenerative disc disease in the neck. Griffin filed a petition against IMRL seeking damages for the injuries sustained in the spike incident and, in 2004, entered into a Settlement Agreement and General Release related to the spike incident.

         From 2004 through his last day of employment with the Railroad in 2013, Griffin primarily drove the Railroad's 2004 Sterling material truck. Even when the material truck was new, it rode stiff, and Griffin likened it to "being on a trotting horse." Logging tires, which "ride really rough, " were used on the truck. When driving to different locations along the track, Griffin had to drive over rough, graveled back roads. Griffin had the truck's suspension repaired several times, had broken link springs replaced, had a new dash installed, and had a seat fixed that had been bounced off; but the repairs did not improve the ride. Griffin made a number of verbal complaints to at least three supervisors over a ten-year period about the truck having an unusually rough ride, to no avail.

         On September 5, 2013, Griffin drove his work truck for long distances and performed various track maintenance activities. After he arrived at his home in Trenton, Missouri, he received a phone call around 8:00 p.m. from his supervisor, who asked him to drive to Excelsior Springs, Missouri, to remove a tree that had gone through the windshield of a train locomotive. Griffin drove to Excelsior Springs to remove the tree from the train track. After finishing the job at midnight, he spent the night at a motel in Kearney, Missouri. He felt a severe knot in his back and stiffness in his neck before he went to bed.

         On September 6, 2013, the pain from the knot or kink in his back was much worse when he woke up. He called his supervisor and told him that he was experiencing severe back pain and that he would drive the truck to the supervisor's office in Chillicothe, Missouri, a distance of approximately seventy miles, but that he could not work that day. When Griffin got back to Chillicothe, he filled out an injury report, because his pain was different than it had ever been before and, hence, he believed that he had suffered an exacerbating new injury that was work-related.

         Griffin then returned home to Trenton and went directly to the emergency room due to the severe pain he was experiencing. He underwent an epidural steroid injection in his back and was told to stay off work for a week and follow up with the doctor a week later. Ultimately, however, due to back and neck pain that Griffin was no longer able to manage with medical assistance, Griffin was never able to return to work for the Railroad. Griffin applied for a disability annuity with the Railroad Retirement Board on January 23, 2014.

         On December 26, 2013, Griffin filed a FELA petition, alleging in Count I that on or about September 2013, the Railroad's negligent acts or omissions resulted in Griffin sustaining new severe and permanent injuries to his neck, back, spine, and body while operating an unsafe Railroad truck; and alleging in Count II that throughout his railroad career, he was subjected to repetitive trauma while repairing the Railroad's tracks and that the Railroad's negligent acts or omissions resulted in Griffin sustaining severe and permanent injuries to his neck, back, spine, and body.

         The Railroad moved for summary judgment. First, the Railroad asserted that Griffin's claims were barred by FELA's three-year statute of limitations in that: (1) the injuries for which Griffin sought damages were directly related to an April 17, 2001 injury he sustained while working for the Railroad's predecessor; and (2) Griffin knew or should have known more than three years before filing suit that his injuries were also caused by other activities he performed at work, including operating his work truck, heavy lifting, and other activities. Second, the Railroad argued that Griffin released all of his claims pursuant to the 2004 Release in which he released the Railroad's predecessor and all its successors from liability for damages relating in any way to the 2001 spike incident, to which the Railroad claimed his current injuries were directly related.

         Griffin argued in response to the statute of limitations issue that he had driven his assigned "defective, " "rough-riding" truck multiple years for the Railroad, but he had a new injury on September 5, 2013, when he drove over 300 miles that day and then had to remove a tree that had fallen on a track. The next morning, he had such severe pain in his back that it required him to go to the emergency room where he received an epidural steroid injection in his back and was told to stay off work for a period of convalescence. Griffin contended that he filed suit on December 26, 2013, well within the three-year statute of limitations in that his injury, for FELA purposes, occurred on September 5, 2013. Griffin further argued that the 2004 Release agreement relating to the 2001 spike incident could not immunize the Railroad from its negligence in causing a new injury to Griffin in 2013.

         The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the Railroad on all of Griffin's claims. Griffin timely appealed. Additional facts will be discussed in the analysis portion of this opinion as necessary.

         Standard of Review

         Appellate review of summary judgment is de novo. ITT Commercial Fin. Corp. v. Mid-Am. Marine Supply Corp., 854 S.W.2d 371, 376 (Mo. banc 1993). Summary judgment is appropriate where the record shows "that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Rule 74.04(c)(6). For purposes of Rule 74.04, a "genuine issue" exists where the record shows two plausible, but contradictory, accounts of the essential facts, and the "genuine issue" is real, not merely argumentative, imaginary, or frivolous. ITT, 854 S.W.2d at 382. We review the record in the light most favorable to the party ...


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