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Donald Jacobs v. Dakota

October 12, 2011

DONALD JACOBS,
PLAINTIFF AND APPELLEE,
v.
DAKOTA, MINNESOTA & EASTERN RAILROAD CORPORATION, A DELAWARE CORPORATION,
DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE THIRD JUDICIAL CIRCUIT BROOKINGS COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA HONORABLE DAVID R. GIENAPP Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Meierhenry, Retired Justice

#25811, #25827-a-JKM

ARGUED ON MAY 25, 2011

[¶1.] Donald Jacobs worked for Dakota, Minnesota, & Eastern Railroad Corporation (DM&E). Jacobs was injured on the job when he fell on snow-covered ice. Jacobs suffered severe injuries to his elbow and shoulder as a result. He subsequently filed a personal injury claim under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), which permits suit against railroads for an employee's injury that "result[s] in whole or in part from [the railroad's] negligence." 45 U.S.C. § 51. After a jury trial, the jury returned a verdict in Jacobs's favor. The jury awarded $300,000 in damages. DM&E appeals, raising several issues. Jacobs raises one issue by notice of review. [¶2.] Jacobs's injury occurred on January 7, 2007, while performing his duties as a rail-car mechanic for DM&E in Huron, South Dakota. His duties took him into the rail yard to check with the train crews for any mechanical problems. He reached each crew by driving a vehicle over the graveled paths in the rail yard. On the day of his injury, snow and ice had accumulated on the rail yard grounds. Because of the snow and ice, Jacobs wore work-issued "ice cleats" over his boots. Even with the ice cleats, he slipped and fell on a patch of snow-covered ice as he returned to his vehicle after talking to one of the crews. The fall fractured his elbow and ultimately caused an injury to his shoulder. Both his elbow and shoulder required surgery. As a result of his injuries, Jacobs has permanent lifting restrictions. [¶3.] Jacobs filed suit against DM&E under FELA. Jacobs alleged that DM&E's negligence caused his injuries. The jury ultimately awarded Jacobs $300,000. DM&E filed a motion for a judgment as a matter of law and alternatively moved for a new trial. The trial court denied both motions and ordered that interest be paid on the judgment, calculated from the day of the verdict. DM&E also filed a motion for a set-off of $16,086.06 for wage-continuation payments made to Jacobs as a form of short-term disability benefits. The trial court granted that motion. [¶4.] DM&E raises the following issues on appeal:

1. Whether the trial court erred in allowing evidence of drainage problems and, if that evidence was admissible, erred in failing to enter a judgment as a matter of law.

2. Whether the trial court abused its discretion in denying DM&E's motion for a new trial.

3. Whether the trial court erred in ordering prejudgment interest from the time of the verdict until the entry of judgment.

[¶5.] By notice of review, Jacobs raises the following issue on appeal:

4. Whether DM&E was entitled to a set-off on the judgment. Analysis and Decision

[¶6.] 1. Whether the trial court erred in allowing evidence of drainage problems and, if that evidence was admissible, erred in failing to enter a judgment as a matter of law.

[¶7.] DM&E presents two arguments under this issue. First, DM&E claims that the trial court erred by admitting photographs and testimony concerning water pooling and drainage in the rail yard. The photographs, which were taken months after Jacobs's accident, showed the area of his fall and other areas of the rail yard. Jacobs offered the photographs and accompanying testimony to show that the rail yard's poor drainage caused ice to form. DM&E claims that Jacobs unfairly used the evidence to show that the poor drainage was "known to DM&E and caused ice to form, which was the basis for concluding that ice accumulation was foreseeable." DM&E questions the relevancy of the evidence and asserts that the "admission of this evidence was improper and unfairly prejudicial far beyond any probative value."*fn1

[¶8.] We review evidentiary rulings under the abuse of discretion standard. Stockwell v. Stockwell , 2010 S.D. 79, ¶ 42, 790 N.W.2d 52, 66. An abuse of discretion occurs when the trial court's ruling is "clearly against reason and evidence." DFA Dairy Fin. Servs., L.P. v. Lawson Special Trust , 2010 S.D. 34, ¶ 17, 781 N.W.2d 664, 669 (citation omitted). Here, the photographs and testimony were relevant to show the rail yard's alleged drainage problems. Even though DM&E may not agree with the evidence, it was able to cross examine and rebut it. We find no abuse of discretion in admitting the photographs and testimony. [¶9.] As to the second argument under this issue, DM&E argues that it is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law on the issue of foreseeability. Both parties agree that for Jacobs to prevail on his claim, DM&E must have foreseen the hazard that ice accumulation presented. See CSX Transp., Inc. v. McBride , __ U.S. __, 131 S. Ct. 2630, 2634, 180 L. Ed. 2d 637 (5-4 decision) (citing Gallick v. Baltimore & Ohio. R.R. Co. , 372 U.S. 108, 117, 83 S. Ct. 659, 665, 9 L. Ed. 2d 618 (1963) (stating that "reasonable foreseeability of harm is an essential ingredient of [FELA] negligence")). DM&E contends that the trial court should have granted its motion for a judgment as a matter of law because Jacobs presented "no evidence" that it was foreseeable that ice would accumulate in the area of his accident. This Court reviews the denial of a motion for a judgment as a matter of law for an abuse of discretion. See Cooper v. Rang

, 2011 S.D. 6, ¶ 4 n.1, 794 N.W.2d 757, 758 n.1. Further, this Court "view[s] the evidence and testimony in a light most favorable to the verdict." Id. [¶10.] In its brief, DM&E argues that foreseeability is a prerequisite to concluding that an employer's negligence proximately caused an employee's injury. The United States Supreme Court recently addressed what an employee needs to prove under FELA to satisfy the proximate cause standard. See McBride , __ U.S. __, 131 S. Ct. at 2636-37. [¶11.] McBride 's central holding reaffirmed the proximate cause standard pronounced in Rogers v. Mo. Pac. R.R. Co

., 352 U.S. 500, 77 S. Ct. 443, 1 L. Ed. 2d 493 (1957). In Rogers

, the Court held that an employer was liable under FELA if the employer's "negligence . . . played any part

at all" in bringing about the employee's injury. McBride

, __ U.S. __, 131 S. Ct. at 2638

(citing Rogers

, 352 U.S. at 508, 77 S. Ct. at 443) (emphasis added).*fn2 In ...


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