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Jury Trashes Metra's Defenses - Highliner Electrician Awarded $750,000 Damages in FELA Verdict

For Immediate Release: October 16, 2015

Contact: Craig M. Sandberg, 312.263.7249, craig@muslin-sandberg.com

Chicago, IL – M-51 was awarded $750,000.00 in damages due to his employer's failure to provide him with a reasonably safe place in which to do his work, which was reduced by 50% for the plaintiff's contributory negligence to $375,000.00, by a jury in the Circuit Court of Cook County located in Chicago, Illinois. The verdict was rendered Friday evening, October 16, after five days of trial. The verdict was against the plaintiff's former employer, Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad System Corporation d/b/a Metra. Metra made no settlement offers prior to the jury's verdict. This matter was filed under the Federal Employer's Liability Act (FELA) (45 U.S.C. §§ 51 through 60 (2000)).

The Supreme Court stated in Consolidated Rail Corp. v. Gottshall, 512 U.S. 532 (1994), that FELA, enacted by Congress in 1908, was intended to provide a federal remedy that “shifted part of the ‘human overhead’ of doing business from employees to their employers.” Consolidated Rail Corp., 512 U.S. at 542.

Between 1989 and 2006 (with various and limited assignments at other locations interspersed) Plaintiff was assigned to Metra’s 18th Street Station where he was a special electric device repairman. His job included manually uncoupling, or separating, railcars when the couplers were inoperable or defective. Frequently, due to dirt/grease/rust/corrosion of the coupling components, the cars were uncoupled using a long bar. Metra’s own materials state “[w]hen splitting or coupling cars between the ‘A’ ends, station an employee at the ‘A’ end of the car being coupled or uncoupled. When uncoupling cars manually with an uncouple bar, stand behind the bar and push.” “If automatic coupling cannot be accomplished (due to equipment failure, freezing, dead car, etc.), coupling or uncoupling may be accomplished manually.” “To uncouple, manually operate the EP manual control handle on BOTH cars to be uncoupled. Insert the uncouple lever in one coupler and gently apply traction power to separate the cars.” Plaintiff's railroad expert testified that the Metra failed to use ordinary care to provide Plaintiff with a reasonably safe place in which to do his work due to its use of uncouple bar.

On December 22, 2006, Plaintiff, while working as a railroad electrician for Metra, presented to Dr. Blair Rhode (Orland Park Orthopedics) with right knee pain. He stated that he has had a problem with the right knee for more than 5 years. However, his symptoms have been getting progressively worse. At that time, there was medial-sided locking, catching, and giving way to the knee. Dr. Rhode diagnosed Plaintiff with suspected meniscal internal derangement in the right knee, as well as osteoarthritis of the right knee. On January 4, 2007, Plaintiff underwent a right knee arthroscopy (partial medial and lateral menisectomy), but, later, noted no significant improvement of pain.

Plaintiff changed orthopedic surgeons from Dr. Rhode to Dr. Ram Aribindi (Southland Bone & Joint Institute, S.C.). On September 11, 2007, Plaintiff underwent a right total knee arthroplasty that was performed by Dr. Aribindi.

Plaintiff's proximate cause expert, Raymond M. Vance, MD, an orthopedic surgeon in San Diego, California, testified that Plaintiff had underlying osteoarthritis in his right knee. However, the use of the Metra-supplied "uncouple bar" aggressively accelerated the plaintiff's underlying pathology in his right knee and, eventually, resulted in the tear of his medical meniscus.

The jury, also, answered "No" to the Special Interrogatory submitted at the request of Metra: "Was the providing of the uncoupling bar a reasonably safe and suitable tool?"

This case was tried in Circuit Court of Cook County in Chicago, Illinois before the Honorable Donald J. Suriano.

NOTE: The jury's finding that Plaintiff had used excessive effort in his use of the uncouple bar to perform his job duty (the basis for the jury's conclusion regarding contributory negligence) meant the jury did not believe either of the defendant's retained experts. Metra retained an ergonomist, Gregory G. Weames (Page Engineering, Inc.), who testified that 90-95% of Page's revenue comes from the railroad industry. Weames, after taking a measurement with a "force gage" on an already uncoupled coupling device, opined, effectively, that it was easier to uncouple railcars than it was take a step up one stair. Metra, also, retained an orthopedic surgeon, G. Klaud Miller, MD (Windy City Orthopedics and Sports Medicine), who opined that the uncoupling activity would never cause or contribute to Plaintiff' injuries.

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