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Mitchell v. BNSF Railway Co.

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Southern District, Second Division

June 25, 2019

JAMES T. MITCHELL, Respondent,
v.
BNSF RAILWAY COMPANY, Appellant.

          APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF GREENE COUNTY Honorable Michael J. Cordonnier, Judge

          OPINION

          DANIEL E. SCOTT, J.

         Jamie Mitchell ("Plaintiff") was injured twice while switching railcars at BNSF's Springfield yard. His four-count FELA petition asserted, and the court ultimately submitted, two claims for each injury: strict liability under the Safety Appliance Act ("SAA") and general negligence.[1] From jury verdicts in Plaintiff's favor on all counts, the court entered a judgment totaling $5, 080, 000 based on the SAA claims.

         On appeal, BNSF urges that (1) the SAA did not apply because BNSF's cars were not statutorily "in use"[2] when Plaintiff was injured; and (2) prejudice from other errors necessitates a new trial. We disagree and affirm the judgment.

         The Springfield Yard

         BNSF's Springfield yard, as depicted in trial exhibits below, includes a center "bowl" of 30 short tracks numbered 101-130 south to north. Bounding this bowl are five long tracks to the north and four long tracks to the south, outside and beyond which lie other facilities, including repair shops.

         On any given day, thousands of railcars pass through the yard. Cars detached from incoming trains are moved onto tracks in the bowl and later pushed back out and reassembled into new trains. There also is a "repair in place" ("RIP") track where mechanical department employees ("car men") can inspect and sometimes repair damaged cars. Cars needing inspection or repair are set apart in the bowl, then moved to track 101, also called the "spotting track," and on from there to the RIP track or repair shops.

         (Image Omitted)

         Plaintiff's 2015 Injury

         Plaintiff first was injured while working in the bowl as part of a two-man switching crew. Around 3 a.m., a train being switched by another crew derailed from track 128 and struck cars on adjacent track 127. Plaintiff was sent to track 127 to move half of those cars to track 130 and did so without incident. He returned to move the other cars to spotting track 101 as initially directed, but his instructions changed. The yardmaster had checked the scene and did not want the last four cars moved until car men arrived to inspect them. Mitchell was directed to "cut" those last four cars and leave them on track 127. As Mitchell prepared to make that cut in the darkness, a handrail he was holding on one car ("NATX") broke and he fell, striking his back and head. Minutes later, car men reached track 127 and, within an hour, "bad ordered" NATX for damaged handrails and ladder.

         Plaintiff's 2017 Injury

         After two surgeries and more than a year's lost time, Plaintiff returned to BNSF switching in early 2017. Soon thereafter, he could not get a pin lifter to release as he sought to uncouple a defective car ("CHVX") on track 118 so it could be moved to spotting track 101 and on to the RIP track for repair.[3] Plaintiff yanked the handle harder and harder until he hurt his back again.

         Trial Proceedings

         Plaintiff's four-count FELA petition was tried to a jury. At the close of all evidence, the trial court found that NATX and CHVX were "in use" for SAA purposes when Plaintiff was injured. The trial court submitted the case to the jury on two verdict forms. Verdict A asked the jury to decide SAA liability, comparative fault, and damages as to Plaintiff's 2015 injury. Verdict B ...


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