Fields v. BNSF Railway Company
OPINION AND ORDER by Magistrate Judge Kimberly E. West granting in part and denying in part 112 Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment and denying 113 Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (adw, Deputy Clerk)
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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE
EASTERN DISTRICT OF OKLAHOMA
DARRYL E. FIELDS,
BNSF RAILWAY COMPANY,
Case No. CIV-16-213-KEW
OPINION AND ORDER
This matter comes before the Court on (1) Plaintiff’s Motion
Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket Entry #113).
March 19, 2015 at approximately 3:55 p.m., Plaintiff Darryl Fields
(“Fields”) came on duty acting as a conductor on train C-CKMIOG026 for the owner, Defendant BNSF Railway Company (“BNSF”) hauling
coal from Madill, Oklahoma to Fort Worth, Texas.
engineer on the run was Trai Burt (“Burt”).
Before departing, it
was determined that the engine needed to be switched out.
engine was placed at the head end of the train.
The decision for
the placement of the engine was jointly made by Burt and Fields
but the ultimate responsibility for the placement rested in Fields
as conductor on the train.
When the train left Madill, Oklahoma, the weather was dry but
it began to rain during the trip.
When the train began ascending
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locomotive engines began to slip and the train began to break apart
causing the train to go “in emergency” whereupon Burt had to “back
off his engines a certain way . . . just to make sure he’s stopped”
and the personnel can then “fix what happened”.
Fields got his
gear together, consisting of a light, a jacket, and eye protection
and walked back to inspect the train.
He walked back 11 or 12
cars and found the train to be split due to a broken knuckle on
freight car FURX960348.
a car and a half.
The cars were separated by the length of
Fields contacted Burt by radio and relayed the
type of knuckle that was broken.
Burt got off of the locomotive
engine and threw off a replacement knuckle on the side of the rail
together with some tools.
He then pulled the train forward with
Fields riding in the rear car of the front portion of the broken
train in order to transport the using the train to carry the
replacement knuckle rather than having to carry it.
Fields then took the broken knuckle out of the coupler and
put in the new knuckle that Burt had offloaded from the train.
Fields told Burt to back up the front half of the train a car and
a half in order to recouple the cars.
Fields thought that the
cars had coupled but when he told Burt to “stretch it” – pull the
train forward to test the joint – the joint came back open again.
Fields told Burt to back up a half car to the joint in order to
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He told Burt to “stretch” the train again and the
joint opened again.
Fields told Burt to move ahead a car and a
half and told him that it must not be the right type of knuckle.
Fields believes that he walked up and either he or Burt took
another replacement knuckle off of the train.
Fields walked back and told Burt to back the train up and
stopped him a car and a half length from the location of the break
in the train.
He took the knuckle off of the car and set it aside.
Fields took the new knuckle and tried to put it in the car but “it
kind of went in cockeyed a little bit.”
Fields had to pull the
knuckle back and he was going to try to put it in again.
walking down to Fields’ location.
As soon as Fields got ready to
push the knuckle back into place, his injury allegedly occurred.
He told Burt to move because he was going to drop the knuckle.
Later, Bobby Beal (“Beal”), who worked in BNSF’s mechanical
department, went to the scene of the train separation.
Burt who told Beal that they had tried to put the knuckle in three
or four times but that it would not go in.
Beal determined that
Fields and Burt had attempted to put an E-type knuckle in an Ftype knuckle coupler, which “won’t work.”
In doing so, they had
bent the inside of the coupler which required Beal to cut it out
and put a knew lock lift and lock in it.
this, the train was “good to go.”
Once he accomplished
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Beal confirmed that the replacement of a knuckle is a one man
The knuckles weigh approximately 80 pounds, regardless of
whether they are an E-type or F-type knuckle.
On May 26, 2016, Fields filed the initial Complaint in this
case which was subsequently amended on March 5, 2020.
alleges that (1) BNSF was negligent in various specified respects
in violation of the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”); and
(2) BNSF violated the Federal Safety Appliance Act (“FSAA”) in the
use of the failed knuckle in this case and failure to inspect the
knuckle thereby subjecting it to strict liability, all resulting
in and causing Fields’ injuries.
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), summary judgment
shall be granted if the record shows that, "there is no genuine
issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled
to a judgment as a matter of law."
The moving party has the burden
of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.
Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 255354, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).
A genuine issue of material fact exists
when "there is sufficient evidence favoring the non-moving party
for a jury to return a verdict for that party."
Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510-11,
91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).
In determining whether a genuine issue of
a material fact exists, the evidence is to be taken in the light
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most favorable to the non-moving party.
Adickes v. S.H. Kress &
Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157, 90 S.Ct. 1598, 1608, 26 L.Ed.2d 142 (1970).
Once the moving party has met its burden, the opposing party must
come forward with specific evidence, not mere allegations or
denials of the pleadings, which demonstrates that there is a
genuine issue for trial.
Posey v. Skyline Corp., 702 F.2d 102,
105 (7th Cir. 1983).
Fields first seeks partial summary judgment, contending (1)
BNSF’s violations of certain statutory and regulatory requirements
establish strict liability under the FSAA and negligence per se
under the FELA and will preclude a contributory negligence defense
violations were the cause of Fields’ injuries thereby establishing
the element of causation on both the FELA and FSAA claims.
In its summary judgment motion, BNSF asserts (1) Fields
presents no evidence that BNSF was negligent under FELA; and (2)
Fields has no evidence of an FSAA violation.
FSAA is considered an amendment to the FELA.
It does not
create an independent cause of action, but railroad employees may
recover for a violation of the FSAA under FELA.
Makovy v. Kansas
City Southern Co., 339 F.Supp.3d 1242, 1245 (E.D. Okla. 2018)
citing Crane v. Cedar Rapids & Iowa City Ry. Co., 395 U.S. 164,
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In order to prevail on his claim under the FSAA, 49
U.S.C. §§ 20301-20306, Fields must only prove a statutory violation
and not negligence.
He “must prove that the statutory violation
was a causative factor contributing in whole or in part to the
accident that caused [his] injuries.”
Id. citing Grogg v. Mo.
Pac. R.R. Co., 841 F.2d 210, 212 (8th Cir. 1988).
In a well-reasoned and well-written opinion from Judge Ronald
White from this District, the requirements for imposition of
liability under the FSAA are clearly established.
wrote in Makovy, supra at 1245-46:
As to statutory violation, the Supreme Court has
held as a matter of law that the failure of couplers to
remain coupled until released constitutes a violation of
49 U.S.C. § 20302(a)(1)(A).
See O'Donnell v. Elgin,
Joliet & E. Ry. Co., 338 U.S. 384, 70 S.Ct. 200, 94 L.Ed.
A broken knuckle causing couplers to
separate thus falls within the Court's reasoning. See
Kukowski v. Soo Line R.R. Co., 2018 WL 834235, *14
(D.Minn. 2018)(“Under the clear language of O'Donnell,
a knuckle which fails to remain coupled until released
constitutes a per se violation of the FSAA”).
No dispute in the facts exists that the failure of the knuckle
which Fields replaced occurred, causing freight car FURX960348 to
uncouple from the rest of the train.
BNSF attempts to draw too
fine of a distinction in contending that O’Donnell and the FSAA
entire assembly and the totality is brought under the auspices of
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Fields is entitled to summary judgment on the issue of
liability under the FSAA for a statutory violation.1
The issue of causation and damages under the FSAA, however,
remains for the jury to determine.
The fact the knuckle broke and
the removal and replacement of the knuckle was required brings any
defect in the part under the umbrella of the FSAA.
This does not
require the adoption of the “but for” theory of causation rejected
by the United States Supreme Court in CSX Transp. Inc. v. McBride,
564 U.S. 685 (2011).
Rather, a jury should be permitted to
determine whether the failure of the knuckle in violation of the
FSAA caused or contributed to Fields’ injury.
See Makovy, supra
at 1246-47 (“The Supreme Court stated that the causal link was
‘hardly farfetched,’ but that those courts observed that the
Richards v. Consol. Rail Corp., 330 F.3d 428 (6th Cir. 2003)(“[I]f
as a result of a defective appliance a plaintiff is required to
take certain actions and he or she is injured while taking those
actions, the issue of causation generally should be submitted to
1 Fields also contends that BNSF is liable under the FSAA for a violation of 49
C.F.R. § 215.123(c) which precludes a railroad from continuing a car in service
“if . . . [t]he car has a coupler knuckle that is broken or cracked on the
inside pulling face of the knuckle.” While the evidence indicates that the
knuckle at issue in this case suffered a fatigue crack according to Mr. Hans C.
Iwand, P.E., an expert hired by BNSF, nothing in the evidence on summary judgment
demonstrates that the crack occurred “on the inside pulling face of the
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Additionally, this Court concurs with the court in Makovy
that while the contributory negligence defense is not applicable
to the FSAA claim, the sole cause defense is available to BNSF.
As that court stated, “if the plaintiff’s negligence was the sole
cause of the injury, then the violation of FSAA could not have
contributed in whole or in part to the injury.”
Id. at 1247 citing
Onysko v. Delaware & Hudson Railway Co., Inc., 2017 WL 372235, *4
(M.D. Pa. 2017).
Fields initially replaced the knuckle with the
wrong type which ultimately led to the replacement of the knuckle
a second time when his alleged injury occurred.
Given the unique
factual scenario presented by this case, it is entirely possible
that a reasonable jury could conclude that his injury was directly
attributable to the sole cause of his negligence in utilizing the
wrong type of knuckle.
Consequently, the matter of causation
under the FSAA, including the sole cause defense, will be left to
the deliberations of the jury empaneled at trial.
Negligence Under the FELA
BNSF next asserts that Fields has no evidence of negligence
on its part such that she may prevail under the FELA.
FELA claim alleges that BNSF is liable under 45 U.S.C. § 51, which
Every common carrier by railroad . . . shall
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be liable in damages to any person suffering
injury while he is employed by such carrier .
. . for such injury or death resulting in whole
or in part from the negligence of any of the
officers, agents, or employees of such
carrier, or by reason of any defect or
insufficiency, due to its negligence, in its
cars, engines, appliances, machinery, track,
. . . or other equipment.
45 U.S.C. § 51.
In order to prevail on his claim under the FELA, Fields must
the employee was injured within the scope
of his employment,
the employment was in furtherance of the
the employer was negligent, and
the employer’s negligence played some
part in causing the injury for which the
employee seeks compensation under FELA.
Ezell v. BNSF Ry. Co., 949 F.3d 1274, 1279–80
(10th Cir. 2020) citing Van Gorder v. Grand
Trunk W. R.R., 509 F.3d 265, 269 (6th Cir.
2007) and Volner v. Union Pac. R.R., 509 F.
BNSF contends that Fields has failed to identify any act of
negligence justifying recovery under the FELA.
asserts that because BNSF violated the FSAA, it should be held
liable under a negligence per se theory of liability.
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concurs with the reasoning in Makovy that the per se violation of
the FSAA establishes the negligence elements of duty of care and
breach of the duty.
However, the remaining required elements of
Makovy, 339 F.Supp.3d at 1247-48.
An “essential ingredient” of an FELA claim is whether the
harm was reasonably foreseeable by the employer.
Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Co., 372 U.S. 108, 117 (1963)(citation
BNSF “may not be held liable if it had no reasonable
way of knowing that the hazard, which caused [Fields’] injury,
Brown v. CSX Transportation, Inc., 18 F.3d 245, 249
(4th Cir. 1994)(citations omitted); see also, Williams v. National
R.R. Passenger Corp., 161 F.3d 1059, 1062 (7th Cir. 1998).
In demonstrating causation, the United States Supreme Court
has found a “relaxed standard of causation applies to FELA.”
Transp. Inc. v. McBride, 564 U.S. at 691-92.
Under FELA's relaxed
standard of causation, “the test of a jury case is simply whether
negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the
injury or death for which damages are sought.”
Id. at 692.
BNSF contends that it had no knowledge of the broken or
defective knuckle and, therefore, could not be held liable in
Fields points to the testimony of Mr. Iwand, BNSF’s
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Mr. Iwand testified that it was possible that if the
knuckle had been inspected, BNSF would have seen the fatigue crack
in the knuckle which was present prior to the March 19, 2015 when
the accident occurred.2
This evidence is sufficient to bring the
question of the reasonable foreseeability of the defect before the
trier of fact.3
IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that Plaintiff’s Motion for Partial
Summary Judgment (Docket Entry #112) is hereby GRANTED, in part,
in that BNSF is found to have violated the FSAA at 49 U.S.C. §
20302(a)(1)(A) and BNSF may not utilize a contributory negligence
defense to the FSAA claim at trial. BNSF may present evidence on
the sole cause defense.
The remainder of the Motion is hereby
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Defendant’s Motion for Summary
Judgment (Docket Entry #113) is hereby DENIED.
IT IS SO ORDERED this 8th day of September, 2021.
KIMBERLY E. WEST
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
2 Iwand Dep., Fields Exh. No. 5, p. 49, l. 2-8; p. 50, l. 14-16.
3 BNSF also challenges the use of the various standards by Fields’ expert, Dr.
Morrissey, to impose negligence liability upon it. This Court will address the
viability for the basis for Dr. Morrissey’s opinions by separate order
pertaining to the BNSF’s Daubert motion which is currently pending.
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