Martin v. BNSF Railway

Martin v. BNSF Railway, 2015 MT 167 (June 23, 2015) (Shea, J.; McKinnon, J., concurring & dissenting) (4-1, aff’d & rev’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court erred by allowing Martin’s Locomotive Act claim to be considered by the jury; (2) whether district court abused its discretion by excluding evidence of heated platforms at BNSF’s Whitefish and Essex depots; and (3) whether the district court abused its discretion by admitting into evidence the amount of income Martin made from non-railroad-related employment.

Short Answer: (1) No; (2) yes for the Whitefish platform but no for the Essex one; (3) yes, necessitating a new trial.

Affirmed and reversed and remanded for new trial

Facts: Martin began working for BNSF in 2004, and was promoted to conductor after a few months. In December 2008 Martin was permanently assigned to the conductors’ extra board in Whitefish, which is a list of conductors who fill in on an as-needed basis for absent workers. Conductors on the extra board are guaranteed a daily rate of pay and paid a higher rate for trips actually made.

On the night of Jan. 1, 2009, Martin was called into the Whitefish yard to work a priority train to Havre. He met the locomotive engineer, Randy Anderson, at the yard, and after completing the required paperwork, the two walked across the platform to the train. Anderson boarded the locomotive before Martin. Martin saw a small amount of ice and snow on the locomotive steps before boarding. He climbed on to the steps, his foot slipped and he fell. He asserts that as he fell backwards toward the platform his left foot came down on a berm of snow that had accumulated between the platform and the locomotive steps, causing his knee to twist and resulting in a torn ACL. The injury required surgery and physical therapy and prevented him from working as a conductor for six months.

Martin filed suit against BNSF in December 2011, alleging negligence under FELA.

Procedural Posture & Holding: The jury returned a verdict for BNSF on negligence and strict liability claims under the Locomotive Inspection Act. On Nov. 20, 2013, Martin moved for judgment as a matter of law, or alternatively, for a new trial. The district court denied the motion. Martin appeals, and the Supreme Court affirms in part and reverses in part.

Reasoning: (1) Injured rail workers may seek recovery under FELA for violation of railroad safety acts such as the Locomotive Inspection Act. Martin must show both that the LIA was violated and that the violation caused his injuries. If the employee establishes a violation of the LIA, the negligence requirement of FELA is established as a matter of law.

The LIA is to be liberally construed to effect its purpose. Here, the applicable safety regulation requires that “[f]loors of cabs, passageways, and compartments shall be kept free from oil, water, waste or any obstruction that creates a slipping, tripping or fire hazard.” 49 C.F.R. § 229.119(c). Martin argues that the presence of ice and snow on the locomotive steps is a violation of this safety regulation, and BNSK is therefore liable as a matter of law. BNSF argues that whether the ice and snow violated the safety reg was a matter for the jury. There was conflicting testimony as to whether the ice and snow caused Martin’s injury. Sufficient evidence supported the jury’s determination that BNSF was not liable, and the district court did not err in submitting this claim to the jury.

(2) After Martin’s injury, Amtrak installed a heated platform at the Whitefish station. BNSF moved in limine to exclude that evidence, arguing it was inadmissible as a subsequent remedial measure. The district court granted the motion. Martin argues that because Amtrak – a non-party — installed the heated platform, the rule against subsequent remedial measures does not apply. The Court agrees, but does not determine whether the error  prejudiced Martin because it remands for a new trial on other grounds.

Regarding the heated platform at Essex, the district court held it was not relevant but advised Martin he could aggressively cross-examine BNSF about the feasibility of heated platforms. Martin did not do so. Under these circumstances, the district court did not abuse its discretion.

(3) Martin moved in limine to exclude any references to his outside consulting employment with a law enforcement agency, and the district court denied the motion. Martin argues the proper measure of his economic loss was the amount he was earning from BNSF. Martin argues admitting this evidence was an incorrect measure of damages, and unfairly prejudiced him. BNSF argues that evidence of Martin’s non-railroad employment shows that he was not available to work 40 hours a week for BNSF, and that he had no motivation to work every day because he was making $80,000-$90,000 in his other job. BNSF argues any error was harmless, as the jury did not find BNSF liable.

To the extent Martin’s time was restricted due to his non-railroad employment, the evidence was admissible. But evidence of outside sources of income for the purpose of suggesting the plaintiff had a motive for not working is so prejudicial as to require reversal. Relevant evidence may be excluded if its prejudicial impact outweighs its probative value. The error was not harmless, and the case is remanded for a new trial.

Justice McKinnon’s Concurrence & Dissent: Justice McKinnon concurs with the majority opinion on the first issue, but dissents on the next two issues. She believes that under the abuse of discretion standard, the district court’s evidentiary rulings should be affirmed.