The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in McLaughlin v. BNSF Railway Co. on June 7, 2012.
Federal Employers’ Liability Act—Locomotive Inspection Act—Safety Appliance Act—Personal Injury—Negligence—Strict Liability—Eggshell Doctrine—Aggravation Doctrine—Pre-existing Medical Condition—Lost Wages—Collateral Source Rule—Disability Benefits.
Defendant BNSF Railway Company (railroad) appealed the judgment entered and damages awarded after a jury found in favor of its employee, plaintiff Thomas McLaughlin, on his statutory strict liability and negligence claims. The judgment was affirmed.
McLaughlin was injured when a locomotive handbrake allegedly malfunctioned when he attempted to release it. He sued the railroad for negligence and strict liability. The railroad asserted that McLaughlin’s injuries were not caused by the handbrake, and alternatively that the jury should apportion damages because McLaughlin had preexisting conditions that the incident had merely aggravated.
The railroad contended that the district court erred by (1) admitting a transcript of the railroad’s claims agent’s post-incident interview of McLaughlin because it contained hearsay, and (2) denying the railroad’s motion for a new trial based on this admission. The railroad’s counsel offered a page of the transcript to challenge McLaughlin’s testimony about the handbrake tension or pressure, and also more generally challenged his description of the incident and his injuries. Consequently, the entire transcript of McLaughlin’s interview about the incident was admissible as a prior consistent statement to rebut the general charge of fabrication. Alternatively, it was admissible to provide context for McLaughlin’s testimony on cross-examination that he had not reported experiencing tension or pressure in operating the handbrake. Because it was not offered for the truth of the matter asserted, it was not inadmissible hearsay.
The railroad also contended that the district court erred by improperly instructing the jury on the eggshell and aggravation doctrines. The evidence showed that although McLaughlin’s doctors had diagnosed him with pre-existing degenerative disc disease, other age-related deteriorating back conditions, and a pre-existing hernia from his childhood, he had not experienced any symptoms before the incident. The eggshell doctrine can apply in Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) cases involving pre-existing conditions. The aggravation doctrine applies when the pre-existing condition was symptomatic before the incident giving rise to the plaintiff’s claim. The eggshell doctrine instruction was appropriate here because (1) there was no evidence that McLaughlin had suffered any pain or symptoms from his back conditions or hernia before the handbrake incident; and (2) there was evidence that his pre-existing conditions were made symptomatic or exacerbated by the incident. In contrast, the evidence did not support giving the aggravation instruction or the modified verdict form. However, any error was harmless because it was in the railroad’s favor.
The railroad further argued that the district court erred by denying its motion in limine to preclude McLaughlin from presenting evidence of lost wages because of his receipt of Railroad Retirement Act (RRA) disability benefits or to reduce the damages award by the amount of those benefits. RRA payments, such as those received by McLaughlin here, are collateral source benefits and may not be offset against a FELA award. Therefore, the district court did not err in denying the motion in limine.
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