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Eckert v. Aliquippa & Southern Railroad Co.

argued: April 7, 1987.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, D.C. Civil No. 85-2008.

Sloviter, Circuit Judge, Becker, Circuit Judge, and Fisher, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Fisher


FISHER, District Judge.

This is an appeal from a jury verdict which plaintiff considers to be inadequate for the injuries and other damages he sustained.*fn1 Specifically, plaintiff charges that the trial court sent the case to the jury only on the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. Section 51-60. This brought into issue comparative negligence, which reduced his damages. He argues to us that the trial court should have submitted the case to the jury not only on the FELA claim, but also on a violation of the Safety Appliance Acts (SAA), 45 U.S.C. Sections 1-50, and the regulations promulgated thereunder. Eckert alleges that the failure to do so was error because contributory negligence is not defense to an FELA claim when the defendant has violated either "any statute enacted for the safety of employees," 45 U.S.C. § 53, or regulations promulgated pursuant to such a statute. We agree and therefore reverse and remand.

Plaintiff Thomas N. Eckert was employed as a brakeman for defendant Aliquippa & Southern Railroad (A&S) on the date of his injury. At the time of the injury, on September 7, 1986, plaintiff was riding on the front of a northbound locomotive which was pushing a gondola car on the loop track.*fn2 The two cars were intended to pass through the 451-472 switch and continue on Track 472. Instead, they proceeded onto Track 451, veered suddenly and unexpectedly to the left and collided with a locomotive which was parked on Track 451, 20-25 feet from the loop switch. The cars failed to couple, and both cars derailed. As a result of the collision, Mr. Eckert was thrown about the car and injured his back, ribs and hip. An investigation of the accident revealed that an A&S employee, an office clerk for A&S, was asked to throw the switch, which would enable the railroad to move the locomotive to a parked position. This employee, who was not a switch operator, did not usually operate switches for the railroad. He failed to realign the switch into the open position (as it the practice) after the locomotive had been parked on the track. This position of the switch caused the cars upon which plaintiff was riding to proceed onto the wrong track and collide with the parked locomotive.

The investigation also revealed that the switch indicator lights were not operative on the night of the accident. The battery-operated indicator lights have four colored lenses, two blue-green lenses and two red lenses. When the switch handle is turned to direct railroad traffic straight ahead, the green lenses light. When it is not, the red lenses light, thereby warning the trainman of an approaching switch. Plaintiff alleges that he thought the train was father south than it actually was because he did not see the (then unlighted) switch indicator light. Two buildings north and sought of the accident site have floodlights which, the parties concede, would illuminate the area of the switch if lighted. The parties stipulated that the floodlights were not lighted on September 7th, and that the area is very dark without the lights. Furthermore, the lantern issued to plaintiff illuminates for a distance of only 50 feet at night. Plaintiff admits that, although the switch is approximately 3 feet away from the rail on the track, he paid no attention to the unilluminated switch indicator.

The district court ruled immediately before trial that both the SAA and the Federal Railway Regulations promulgated thereunder were inapplicable to the case. Further, it precluded plaintiff from presenting any evidence pertaining to this cause of action and rejected offers of proof relating to the SAA issue.*fn3 Although the court took judicial notice of the Federal Railway Regulations, which require switch position indicators to be visible clearly at all times, the court refused to charge the jury with plaintiff's requested points on the regulations. Further, although plaintiff argued that the failure of the cars to couple contributed to the accident, the court also refused to permit testimony to this end. The district court determined that the SAA "has no causal relationship to this accident." (App.53a)

Recently, in Beissel v. Pittsburgh and Lake Erie R. Co., 801 F.2d 143 (3d Cir.) cert. denied, 479 U.S. 1088, 107 S. Ct. 1296, 94 L. Ed. 2d 152 (1986), this court held that a trial court commits reversible error by failing to submit an SAA claim to the jury when a provision of the Act has been violated through a violation of a regulation promulgated thereunder.*fn4 Id. at 145. In the case herein, plaintiff alleges that the district court refused to submit to the jury either the issue of the failure of the cars to couple, a violation of the SAA, 45 U.S.C. § 2, or the issue of a failure to operate of a switch position indicator.

Plaintiff made an offer of proof consisting of evidence by witnesses, including plaintiff,*fn5 of experienced railroad men regarding the violations of the SAA and the Regulations promulgated thereunder.

Section 2 of the SAA provides:

Automatic Couplers

It shall be unlawful for any common carrier engaged in interstate commerce by railroad to haul or permit to be hauled or add on its line any cars used in moving interstate traffic not equipped with couplers coupling automatically by impact, and which can be uncoupled without the necessity of men going between the ends of cars.

The duty imposed by the SAA is not based upon any negligence on the part of the railroad, but is an absolute duty. Equipment failure constitutes an actionable wrong and negligence is not an issue in cases involving violations of the SAA, and proof of care or diligence does not provide evidence of liability. ...

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