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Wagner v. Reading Co.


decided: June 23, 1970.


Kalodner and Van Dusen, Circuit Judges, and Fullam, District Judge.

Author: Van Dusen


VAN DUSEN, Circuit Judge.

This case is before the court on appeal from a March 19, 1969, judgment on a verdict for plaintiff in an action under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. ยง 51 ff., for damages suffered by the plaintiff as the result of an accident during a train movement on the "Columbia Annex Run." Wagner was conductor of a train crew assigned on March 19, 1965, to transfer cars from a main track of the railroad onto a siding, crossing a road and entering an industrial plant in Columbia, Pennsylvania. He left the engine which his crew was using and entered the plant to make sure that it was safe to move the cars and was crushed between two cars when a fellow employee allegedly moved the train without authorization or signal from the plaintiff, who was in charge. The defendant offered evidence aimed at showing that Wagner himself had given the signal which caused the cars to move. The jury found for the plaintiff but reduced its award of $11,100. by 40% on the basis of contributory negligence. The trial judge denied plaintiff's motion for a new trial,*fn1 and Wagner now asserts several grounds for reversal on this appeal.

Cross-Examination of Medical Witness

As soon as the injury occurred, Wagner was taken to Columbia Hospital, where he was examined and operated on by Dr. Paul J. Rowan who supervised his convalescence until his release from the hospital. Dr. Rowan testified that, after x-rays were taken, exploratory surgery was performed on the plaintiff which revealed that his stomach and other internal organs had been pushed out of place, and that four of plaintiff's ribs had been fractured. He removed plaintiff's spleen and moved the misplaced internal organs to their proper position. Dr. Rowan notified defendant that the plaintiff was able to resume work on May 17, 1965, approximately two months after the accident. During his testimony he made reference to hospital reports made during plaintiff's treatment which were subsequently introduced into evidence at the close of plaintiff's case.

On cross-examination, defendant's counsel was permitted to ask Dr. Rowan, over objection, if during surgery he had discovered or detected an esophageal hiatal hernia. He answered that he had not. Plaintiff contended at trial, and he has renewed his contention on appeal, that this was improper cross-examination since it was beyond the scope of his direct examination of the doctor*fn2 We disagree*fn3 Initially it may be observed that the determination of the extent or limitation upon cross-examination of witnesses is a matter of discretion with the trial court. See Thorp v. American Aviation and General Insurance Co., 212 F.2d 821 (3rd Cir. 1954). Where, as here, a general treating physician has testified on direct examination to his diagnosis and treatment of injuries he discovered in a patient's chest and abdominal region, it is no abuse of discretion to permit a question aimed at negating an injury to organs in this region. Our conclusion is supported by the statement in the x-ray reports to which Dr. Rowan referred during direct examination that no such hernia existed (see plaintiff's Exhibit P-3, x-ray report of 3/30/65).*fn4

Exclusion of Wage Records from August 1966 to Time of Trial

The plaintiff testified that, after being released to return to work in May of 1965, he could not cope with the long hours required on the Columbia Annex Run where he had been working at the time of the injury, so that he took a lower paying position in the defendant's Coatesville Yard until January 21, 1966. At that time, thinking that he would be able to perform the duties, he returned to the Columbia Annex Run, where he worked until August 1966. He left the Columbia Annex Run in that month "Because, as I stated before, after we start making a lot of overtime, and after eight hours or more I start hurting more through the chest cavity. As I get tireder I hurt more." At that time, he went to work at the defendant's Lancaster freight run, where he was not required to work overtime.

Dr. Rowan testified that he certified that plaintiff could return "to his usual work" on May 17, 1965. However, in response to a question on cross-examination which implied that Wagner had fully recovered at that point, the doctor replied:

"I concluded that he had reached maximum medical benefit, and that aside from the sequela which I have mentioned, he had recovered to the point where medical science could bring him."

He also testified that the plaintiff would have "sequela," including adhesions in the abdomen and permanent scarring in the left chest cavity, and that these residual effects of the accident would cause "distress."

When the plaintiff sought to introduce wage records to demonstrate a differential in pay between what he could have earned had he stayed at the Columbia Annex Run and what he earned after August of 1966 on the Lancaster Run and on similar work prior to trial,*fn5 the trial judge excluded the evidence over timely objection.

After careful consideration of the record, we have concluded that the possible loss of earnings after August 1966 should have been left to the jury and this ruling excluding the wage records was prejudicial error, requiring a partial new trial.*fn6 Contrary to defendant's contention, plaintiff's medical witness did not testify that plaintiff was "fully recovered" when he released him for work in May of 1965. Rather, as noted above, he testified that he had recovered "to the point where medical science could bring him." In view of his testimony that certain residual effects of the accident would cause the plaintiff distress, plaintiff was clearly competent to testify to the existence of pain in his chest cavity and the jury could have believed that this pain made the longer hours on the Columbia Annex Run intolerable, as plaintiff claimed. In the context of this claim, we do not believe that medical testimony was required to establish plaintiff's inability to work when such inability was allegedly caused by pain which medical testimony had already established was the result of the accident in question. See Schultz v. City of Pittsburgh, 370 Pa. 271, 88 A.2d 74 (1952); Tabuteau v. London Guarantee & Accident Co., 351 Pa. 183, 40 A.2d 396 (1945). The case of Dixon v. Pennsylvania Railroad Company, 378 F.2d 392 (3rd Cir. 1967), relied on by the defendant, is clearly inapplicable. There a railroad signalman claimed a future loss of earnings from his alleged inability to climb, which purportedly arose from an injury suffered to his right leg. His own doctor, however, testified that the ability to climb could be determined only by climbing and the signalman had not tested his leg by attempting to climb. His employer's doctors had cleared him for climbing work about a year after the accident. We sustained the District Court's refusal to submit this issue to the jury on the grounds that a jury verdict would have been "sheer conjecture." Such was not the case here, where plaintiff had in fact attempted to perform the disputed task for some six months and medical testimony had established that the pain which he claimed necessitated his taking another position was a result of the accident.*fn7

Because the above-described exclusion of evidence only concerned the damage issues, plaintiff is entitled to a new trial solely on those issues. Any award of damages at the new trial will bear interest from March 19, 1969.*fn8

Since the record justifies the jury's findings of negligence and contributory negligence, the assessment of damages portion of the March 19, 1969, judgment will be vacated and the cause remanded for a new trial solely on the issue of damages, in accordance with the foregoing opinion.*fn9

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