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Caniff v. CSX Transportation, Inc.

Supreme Court of Kentucky

August 21, 2014

JEFFREY T. CANIFF, APPELLANT
v.
CSX TRANSPORTATION, INC., APPELLEE

Released for Publication September 11, 2014.

ON REVIEW FROM COURT OF APPEALS. CASE NO. 2011-CA-000178-MR. PERRY CIRCUIT COURT NO. 07-CI-00741.

FOR APPELLANT: Alva A. Hollon, Jr., Thomas Ira Eckert.

FOR APPELLEE: Linsey Walker West, Kara MacCartie Stewart, Michael B. Kimberly, Dan Himmelfarb.

OPINION OF THE COURT BY JUSTICE SCOTT. Cunningham, Keller, Noble, and Venters, JJ., concur. Minton, C.J., dissents by separate opinion in which Abramson, J., joins. Abramson, J., joins.

OPINION

Page 369

SCOTT, JUSTICE.

Jeffrey Caniff, Appellant, filed suit against his employer, CSX Transportation, Inc. (CSXT), in Perry Circuit Court pursuant to the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. § § 51-60. The trial court granted CSXT's motion for summary judgment and Caniff appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed. Caniff sought discretionary review with this Court, which we granted. We now reverse and remand to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. BACKGROUND

Caniff began his career with the railroad in 1979.[1] While Caniff was laid off several times during his railroad career (once for a period of several years), he eventually obtained a second shift job working as a carman at the Russell Yard. As a carman, Caniff's responsibilities were to inspect trains, attach or " lace up" hoses, and release hand brakes. His job description required him to " lift up to 70 pounds occasionally and up to 100 pounds on a rare basis." Caniff sustained an unrelated work injury in 1999 or 2000 which required neck surgery (a cervical fusion) and led to decreased strength in his left arm. He testified that after this injury, he required assistance in completing some tasks at work that he had been able to perform on his own prior to the injury.

Page 370

As a carman, Caniff generally worked with the same crew from day-to-day on one particular train. However, the circumstances in the rail yard on December 10, 2004, required him to perform tasks that were not typically part of his job. On that day, a train separated on the main line in the rail yard and was blocking the crossing. The worker who would usually go out to make the repair (called the high rail man[2]) had been assigned to fill in for another worker who missed work that day, and Caniff's supervisor told him to go out and make the repair rather than performing his normally-assigned duties.

Caniff drove the high rail out to the separated train in order to ascertain the problem. Since there was not an open track next to the train, Caniff drove the high rail on the road next to the track, like a regular truck. Because it had been raining in the preceding days, there were several deep mud holes and Caniff was unable to get closer to the car in question than two-hundred feet. When he saw the separation was caused by a broken knuckle,[3] he drove the truck back to retrieve a replacement knuckle. Caniff asked his immediate supervisor if another employee could assist with this job, but he was instructed that employee was unavailable and to " do what you can do." As Caniff returned with the replacement knuckle, he approached the car in need of repair as closely as he could in the truck (but was still two- or three-hundred feet away due to the poor condition of the road).

While Caniff had carried knuckles by himself in the past, he testified that had never done so on the main line. The crushed gravel, called ballast, used on the main line was larger than that used in the rest of the yard. Caniff's fact witness, John Quillen, another CSXT employee, testified during his deposition that some of the ballast on the main line was the size of a softball or a fist. The yard conditions were more hazardous than usual, as it had been raining the previous days and was misting on the day in question.

Caniff had carried the 75- to 90-pound knuckle waist high approximately 80 feet[4] on the wet main line ballast before he lost his footing and fell while climbing over a rail on the main line. At the time, he was attempting to step from the level ground of the rail bed onto the slope at its side, as was necessary so that he could approach the train car from the appropriate side in order to replace the knuckle. Per CSXT's instruction, Caniff carried the knuckle waist-high and close to his body. Both Caniff and John Quillen, another CSXT employee, testified in their depositions that this was the appropriate manner for one person to carry a knuckle. Caniff testified in his deposition that he could not see his feet while carrying the knuckle in this manner.

When Caniff lost his footing and began to fall, he twisted to the side, heard a popping sound, and felt a vibration in his spine. He thought at first that perhaps this fall had just aggravated his old neck injury or that he had merely " pulled something" and believed that his symptoms would dissipate with time. Caniff did not carry the knuckle the remaining distance

Page 371

(more than 100 feet) to the car in need of repair, but he did assist the conductor with its installation. Caniff worked a few more days in December of that year before seeking medical attention. Eventually, Caniff saw several doctors for his injury. The last day Caniff worked was January 3, 2005, when he clocked in for one hour in order to get paid for the New Year's holiday.

Caniff sued CSXT in Perry Circuit Court under FELA. He asserted that CSXT was negligent under FELA in its maintenance of the ballast and for having him carry a heavy knuckle without sufficient mechanical or manual assistance. The trial court granted CSXT's motion for summary judgment on the grounds that " (1) [Caniff] failed to identify any act or omission by CSXT with respect to its premises that caused or contributed to [Caniff's] slip and fall on December 10, 2004, and (2) [Caniff] had no expert testimony to support his negligence claim regarding the knuckle." The trial court reasoned that expert testimony was required to determine whether carrying a knuckle alone for 200 feet was consistent with industry practice. Once the trial court granted summary judgment on Caniff's negligence claims in favor of CSXT, Caniff failed to raise the ballast maintenance issue at the Court of Appeals. Therefore, we will only consider whether summary judgment was proper on the issue of CSXT's negligence in requiring Caniff to carry the knuckle without sufficient mechanical or manual assistance.

II. ANALYSIS

Caniff brought his claim in Perry Circuit Court pursuant to FELA, which provides in pertinent part:

every . . . railroad . . . shall be liable in damages to any person suffering injury while he is employed by such carrier . . . for such injury . . . resulting in whole or in part from the negligence of any of the officers, agents, or employees of such carrier, or by reason of any defect or insufficiency, due to its negligence, in its cars, engines, appliances, machinery, track, roadbed, works, boats, wharves, or other equipment.

45 U.S.C.A. § 51. Thus, for an employee to have a claim under FELA, he need only show that his injury resulted in part from the railroad's negligence. In fact, the employee's burden in a FELA case is simply to establish that his or her " employer['s] negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury or death for which damages are sought. It does not matter that, from the evidence, the jury may also with reason, on grounds of probability, attribute the result to other causes, including the employee's ...


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