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Gibbons v. Union Pacific Railroad Co.

United States District Court, D. Nevada

March 25, 2019

GREG GIBBONS, Plaintiff,



         Pending before the Court are the Motions to Amend Judgment or in the alternative Motion for New Trial or Remittitur filed by Defendant Union Pacific Railroad Company (“Defendant”). (ECF Nos. 135, 137). Plaintiff Greg Gibbons (“Plaintiff) filed a Response, (ECF No. 144), and Defendant filed a Reply, (ECF No. 146). For the reasons stated herein, Defendant's Motions are DENIED.

         I. DISCUSSION

         This action arises out of a personal injury incident that occurred on December 9, 2012, while Plaintiff was employed as a truck driver for Defendant. At the time of the incident, Plaintiff was hauling equipment and supplies through a canyon near Caliente, Nevada. In order to reach his destination, Plaintiff had to traverse a railroad flatcar bridge owned and maintained by Defendant. The flatcar bridge spanned roughly one-hundred feet and was suspended roughly twelve feet above the canyon floor. As Plaintiff crossed the canyon, the bridge collapsed into the underlying riverbed, causing injuries to Plaintiff's neck and back.

         Based on these injuries, Plaintiff initiated this action against Defendant on November 25, 2015, asserting a claim for negligence under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (“FELA”). Beginning on April 23, 2018, the Court conducted a nine-day jury trial to determine liability and damages. On May 7, 2018, the jury reached a unanimous verdict and awarded Plaintiff: (1) $1, 500, 000.00 in lost wages and benefits; (2) $500, 000.00 in likely future medical and hospital expenses; (3) $1, 500, 000.00 for mental and emotional humiliation or pain and anguish; and (4) $1, 500, 000.00 in physical pain and suffering. Defendant now moves for an amended verdict or new trial pursuant the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 59(a) and 59(e).


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a)(1) provides that “[t]he court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues-and to any party-as follows: (A) after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court [.]” While Rule 59 does not specify the grounds on which a motion for a new trial may be granted, “[h]istorically recognized grounds include, but are not limited to, claims ‘that the verdict is against the weight of the evidence, that the damages are excessive, or that, for other reasons, the trial was not fair to the party moving.'” Molski v. M.J. Cable, Inc., 481 F.3d 724, 729 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting Montgomery Ward & Co. v. Duncan, 311 U.S. 243, 251 (1940)). A new trial should not be granted unless, after giving full respect to the jury's findings, the Court “is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” Landes Const. Co. v. Royal Bank of Canada, 833 F.2d 1365, 1371-72 (9th Cir. 1987). “The grant of a new trial is ‘confided almost entirely to the exercise of discretion on the part of the trial court.'” Murphy v. City of Long Beach, 914 F.2d 183, 186 (9th Cir. 1990) (quoting Allied Chem. Corp. v. Daiflon, Inc., 449 U.S. 33 (1980)).

         In FELA cases, the district court's discretion is even further circumscribed. See Tappero v. S. Pac. Transp. Co., 859 F.2d 154 (9th Cir. 1988). Here, the verdict must be honored “unless there is a complete absence of probative facts to support the jury's conclusion” because in these cases “the jury's power to engage in inferences is significantly broader than in common law negligence actions.” Pierce v. Southern Pac. Transp. Co., 823 F.2d 1366, 1370 (9th Cir. 1987). Only “slight” or “minimal” evidence is required to raise a jury question of negligence in a FELA case. Mendoza v. Southern Pac. Transp. Co., 733 F.2d 631, 632 (9th Cir. 1984). “ ‘[I]t is only necessary that the jury's conclusion be one which is not outside the possibility of reason on the facts and circumstances shown.' ” Id. at 633 (quoting Chicago, Rock Island & Pac. R. Co. v. Melcher, 333 F.2d 996, 999 (8th Cir. 1964)).

         Under Rule 59(e), a district court may alter or amend a judgment: (1) to correct manifest errors of law or fact upon which the judgment rests; (2) to present newly discovered or previously unavailable evidence; (3) to prevent manifest injustice; and (4) if the amendment is justified by an intervening change in controlling law. Allstate Ins. Co. v. Herron, 634 F.3d 1101, 1111 (9th Cir. 2011). Although a district court “enjoys considerable discretion” in considering such a motion, “amending a judgment after its entry remains an extraordinary remedy which should be used sparingly.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).


         Defendant advances three arguments in favor of granting a new trial or amending the verdict: (1) Plaintiff failed to prove a necessary element of the negligence claim as a matter of law; (2) the Court's “evidentiary rulings and reversals in position” during trial impacted the verdict; and (3) the verdict is legally excessive. (Mot. for New Trial, ECF No. 135). The Court addresses each argument in turn.

         A. Failure to Prove a Necessary Element of the Claim

          Defendant asserts that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because Plaintiff “offered no evidence of notice to [Defendant] of an alleged defect in the bridge prior to the incident.” (Id. 10:2-3).[1] To establish a claim for negligence under FELA, a Plaintiff must demonstrate that the employer had knowledge of a potentially dangerous condition and failed to reasonably investigate or correct the problem. See Gallose v. Long Island R. Co., 878 F.2d 80, 85 (2d Cir. 1989) (citing Mohn v. Marla Marie, Inc., 625 F.2d 900, 902 (9th Cir. 1980)). As noted in Jury Instruction No. 28, “if an employer learns or should learn of a potential hazard, it must take reasonable steps to investigate and to inform and protect its employees, or it will be liable when injury occurs.” See Gallose, 878 F.2d at 85 (emphasis added).

         Here, the record contains evidence from Plaintiff's expert Mark Burns as to the limited load-bearing capacity and structural integrity of the flatcar bridge. This evidence is further supported by photographs that show visible sagging in the center of the bridge prior to its collapse. Defendant's own witness, Randy Winn, testified as to the limited nature of Defendant's bridge inspections. Based on the record, the Court finds that a reasonable juror could conclude that Defendant learned or should have learned of a potential hazard with the flatcar bridge. See Baker v. Texas & Pacific Railway Co.,359 U.S. 227, 228 (1959) (stating that a court may only take a factual determination from the jury when reasonable ...

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