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Lauria v. National Railroad Passenger Corp.

May 22, 1998

FRANK LAURIA, APPELLANT IN APPEAL NO. 97-1306
v.
NATIONAL RAILROAD PASSENGER CORPORATION, APPELLANT IN APPEAL NOS. 97-1361/62/63



Before: Sloviter, Rendell, and Seitz, Circuit Judges

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rendell, Circuit Judge:

ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA

(D.C. Civil No. 95-1561)

Argued: March 17, 1998

OPINION OF THE COURT

Appellant Frank Lauria and two railyard co-workers were traversing the railroad tracks near Philadelphia's 30th Street Station late one evening when Lauria slipped and injured himself. He sued his employer, Appellee National Railroad Passenger Corporation ("Amtrak"), under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. § 51, et seq., ("FELA"), claiming a workplace injury caused by Amtrak's failure to provide a reasonably safe work environment. At trial, the district court refused to permit the admission of expert and lay opinion testimony, and at the close of Lauria's case it entered a judgment as a matter of law in favor of Amtrak. We have jurisdiction over the district court's ruling pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291, and we will reverse and remand for a new trial.

I.

On November 8, 1993, Lauria slipped while crossing the tracks at Amtrak's Penn Coach Yard in Philadelphia with two co-workers, Campbell Smith, an engineer, and Carl Boselli, a conductor. Lauria testified that because they were crossing a "dark" railyard with "poor" lighting conditions, he was trying to step on the ballast, the coarse gravel that is used to form the bed of the railroad, rather than on the rail ties themselves, because it provides stable footing and support between the tracks. However, Lauria lost his balance and fell on Track 26 while trying to step over the ties. He stated under oath that he raised his left foot, lifted it over the rail, and set it firmly on the ballast. He then lifted his right foot, but he slipped when trying to place that foot down on the ballast, and he fell to the ground, developing sharp pains in his right leg and lower back before losing consciousness. Lauria admitted that he never saw what caused the fall, but he testified that he had stepped on "something slippery," rather than on the ballast that is usually found between the two rail ties on the tracks.

Boselli testified that he was standing an "arm's length" from Lauria when the accident occurred. Boselli saw Lauria fall, heard him "smack" onto the ground, and felt "baffled" because Lauria "fell violently." Immediately after the accident, Boselli looked down and saw a "fresh" skid mark on the surface of a piece of wood that was lying inside the gauge of the track where the ballast providing stable footing would normally be found. The wood was in the exact area where Lauria had slipped, and the skid mark was at the precise spot where the fall had occurred. Boselli also noticed that the lighting conditions were "poor," because the overhead lights did not sufficiently illuminate the area where Lauria fell, and because the trains "were blocking the passage of what lights did exist."

Lauria attempted to offer Robert T. Slavin, a track foreman and maintenance engineer, to support his case as an expert witness under Federal Rule of Evidence 702. Slavin was prepared to testify that Amtrak's negligence in failing to remove a piece of wood from the tracks had contributed to and caused Lauria's injuries. However, the district court found that Slavin was not sufficiently qualified as an expert on track maintenance operations, and it refused to allow him to render an opinion. The court also rejected Lauria's effort to introduce Slavin as a lay witness pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 701. As a result, Lauria sought to recall Boselli as a lay witness to testify about the condition of the tracks on the morning after the accident. Once again, though, the district court denied Lauria's request under Rule 701 and precluded the witness from testifying. Amtrak then moved for judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(a), arguing that without the testimony of Slavin and Boselli, Lauria had presented no evidence that Amtrak's negligence had contributed to his injuries. The district court agreed, and on March 27, 1997, it dismissed Lauria's claims and entered judgment in favor of Amtrak at the close of Lauria's case.

Lauria contends on appeal that the district court abused its discretion in excluding the testimony of Slavin and Boselli and erred in entering a judgment in Amtrak's favor.*fn1 We need not reach the issue of the correctness of the district court's ruling on the motion for judgment as a matter of law, because we conclude that Lauria's failure to produce evidence of negligence resulted from the improper exclusion of testimony from Slavin and Boselli that was clearly admissible.*fn2 Therefore, we will reverse and remand for a new trial at which Slavin and Boselli may testify on Lauria's behalf.

II.

The district court incorrectly prohibited Slavin from testifying as an expert witness. Federal Rule of Evidence 702 provides that "[i]f scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise." The Rule therefore has three fundamental requirements: (1) the proffered witness must qualify as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education; (2) the expert must testif y to scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge; and (3) the expert's testimony must assist the trier o f fact. United States v. Velasquez, 64 F.3d 844, 849 (3d Cir. 1995). Here, the district court appears to have excluded Slavin's testimony based on the first two elements of the test, evincing skepticism as to both the extent of Slavin's qualifications and as to whether he possessed specialized knowledge.*fn3

Lauria offered Slavin as an expert in track maintenance based on his experience and education in "Maintenance of Way" and related train procedures. Slavin's expert report contained his opinion that, from an examination of photos and the site, the piece of wood in question was a"base tie" over which a walkway platform once existed; that it should have been discovered by Amtrak ...


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