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An Approved Jury Instruction Isn't Always the Best Choice

December 11, 2019 | John Lord

The Missouri Court of Appeals (Western District) recently reversed a defense verdict because the trial court’s verdict directing instruction, taken from the Missouri Approved Instructions (MAI), didn’t accurately state the law applicable to Plaintiff’s claim. 

In Gary Miller v. Norfolk Southern Railway Company, Plaintiff Miller sued his railroad employer based on the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (“FELA”).  Miller claimed to have sustained cumulative injuries caused by defective locomotive cab seats.  Specifically, he claimed that the railroad’s cab seats were “loose and wobbly” and they failed to protect him from excessive shock, jarring and vibration. This negligence caused him to suffer back injuries.   The jury was instructed on two theories of recovery for Miller under the FELA:  general negligence and negligence per se for violation of the Locomotive Inspection Act (“LIA”, 49 U.S.C. s. 20701 et seq.).   The jury found for the railroad on both theories.

On appeal, Miller asserted that the trial court erred by refusing his proffered verdict director relating to his negligence per se theory, and by submitting an instruction that did not properly state the law applicable to his claim.  The Court of Appeals agreed.  

The Court of Appeals observed that the LIA supplements the FELA by imposing on railroads an absolute duty to provide safe locomotives.  The LIA provides that railroads may only use locomotives that “are in proper condition and safe to operate without unnecessary danger of personal injury”.  Pursuant to the LIA, the Federal Railroad Administration (“FRA”) promulgated regulations governing standards of care for locomotives, including cab seats.  These regulations include 49 C.F.R. s. 229.119(a) which states that cab seats “shall be securely mounted and braced”.

The Court further noted that a railroad can violate the LIA by breaching the broad statutory duty to provide locomotives that are “safe to operate without unnecessary danger of personal injury” (the general statutory duty) or by failing to comply with regulations issued by the FRA (a specific regulatory duty). 

Miller requested a verdict directing instruction on his negligence per se theory based on the railroad’s failure to comply with the specific regulatory duty, i.e. 49 C.F.R s. 229.119(a).  He intended to forgo a verdict director based on the general statutory duty, i.e. 49 U.S.C. s. 20701.  The approved instruction for an FELA claim based on an LIA violation tracks the language of the LIA’s general statutory duty.  There is no approved instruction that tracks a specific regulatory duty.  The trial court refused Plaintiff’s proffered instruction and instead gave Defendant’s instruction that was based on MAI.

The Court of Appeals concluded that the difference between proceeding under a theory that the railroad violated a specific regulatory duty - as opposed to the general LIA statutory duty - is significant.   A violation of the general statutory duty required Plaintiff to prove that the railroad’s cab seats were not “safe to operate without unnecessary danger of personal injury”.   This proof is not required when a railroad allegedly violates a specific regulatory duty because regulations promulgated by the FRA pursuant to the LIA have already been supported by a finding that the regulation is necessary to eliminate unnecessary danger of personal injury.

The Court added that the lack of an approved instruction based on the specific regulatory duty didn’t bar Miller from submitting his theory to the jury, nor did this relieve the trial court of its duty to accurately instruct the jury on applicable regulatory standards.


Related Services: Railroad
Attorneys: John Lord

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The BSCR Missouri Law Blog examines significant developments, trends and changes in Missouri law on a broad range of topics of interest to Missouri practitioners and attorneys and businesses with disputes subject to Missouri law. Learn more about the editor, David Eisenberg.

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