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Crompton v. BNSF Railway Co.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

March 12, 2014

Brian Crompton, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
BNSF Railway Company, Defendant-Appellant.

Argued September 27, 2013

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. No. 3:11-cv-00431-JPG-DGW - J. Phil Gilbert, Judge.

Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Bauer and Easterbrook, Circuit Judges.

Bauer, Circuit Judge.

Brian Crompton ("Crompton") brought suit against BNSF Railway Company ("BNSF") under the Federal Employment Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. §§ 51-60 and the Locomotive Inspection Act, 49 U.S.C. § 20701. He alleges that he was knocked off a train due to negligence on the part of BNSF. BNSF moved for summary judgment on both counts; the district court denied its motion and allowed the case to proceed to a jury. The jury found BNSF liable and awarded damages to Crompton. BNSF now appeals to this Court. The issue before us is whether the evidence presented at trial was sufficient for a jury to conclude that BNSF was negligent. We find that it was and affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

Crompton began work as a railroad conductor for BNSF in 2001. On April 24, 2011, he worked on BNSF 5695, a General Electric AC4400 series locomotive, which was set to travel from Paducah, Kentucky, to Centralia, Illinois. Before the train departed, Bruce Yancey ("Yancey"), a BNSF engineer, performed the required daily inspection. Yancey found no defects with the locomotive, including its doors and latches. During the trip, Crompton exited the front cab door several times, and found nothing wrong with the door or its latch. As the train approached Neilson Junction, it was traveling downhill. Crompton exited the front cab door of the locomotive to throw a switch so that the train would continue towards Centralia. He asserts that he closed and latched the front cab door before he stepped out onto the platform. The door remained closed for fiftyone seconds, and then it suddenly flew open, knocking Crompton off the train and to the ground. He suffered injuries to his head, neck, and back.

Crompton brought suit against BNSF under both the Locomotive Inspection Act ("LIA") and the Federal Employment Liability Act ("FELA"), claiming that BNSF failed to keep the locomotive and its parts in good working order, and that he was injured due to BNSF's negligence.

A. BNSF's Motion for Summary Judgment

BNSF moved for summary judgment on both counts. In response, Crompton attached the depositions of BNSF engineer Yancey, BNSF engineer Lindell David Perry, Jr. ("Perry"), and BNSF machinist Francis Ferry ("Ferry"). Yancey testified that he had ridden on similar model AC 4400 locomotives when the front cab door came open on its own without being opened or operated by a crew member. He also stated that doors coming open were common problems found on AC 4400 locomotives, and that BNSF's management was aware that the front cab doors come open improperly. He stated that he once attended a safety meeting that was called and conducted by BNSF company management due to another employee's injury that was caused by a locomotive's front door coming unlatched and opening. Perry stated that he had been on locomotives similar to BNSF 5695 where the front cab door came open on its own without being opened by a crew member as well, and said that BNSF was well aware of this problem. Ferry inspected BNSF 5695 after the accident, and commented that if the front cab door had been latched by Crompton, it would not have come open absent some sort of defect.

The district court denied BNSF's motion for summary judgment, explaining that a reasonable jury could conclude that the latch was defective. The court found that the evidence, taken in the light most favorable to Crompton, was sufficient for the case to proceed to a jury.

B. The Trial

At trial, Crompton presented the testimony of BNSF engineers Yancey and Perry. Both men testified that they had been on locomotives similar to BNSF 5695 where the front cab door had come open on its own without being unlatched by a crew member. They also asserted that BNSF was aware of this issue. Crompton testified as well, saying he was certain that he had closed and latched the door before he exited the locomotive as the train approached Neilson Junction. He also pointed out that the door remained closed for 51 seconds after he latched it even though the train was traveling downhill. He presented evidence of other types of latches that BNSF could have employed on the front cab door, which he claims would have better secured the door.

BNSF then presented evidence that Yancey conducted a pre-trip inspection of BNSF 5695 on the morning of the accident, but found no defects with the door or its latch; he certified that everything was working properly. Yancey inspected the locomotive again after the accident, and found no defects with the door or its latch. BNSF also presented the expert testimony of machinist Clifford Bigelow ("Bigelow"). Bigelow inspected BNSF 5695 after the accident, and confirmed the absence of a defect in the latch. He stated that he "saw no plausible explanation for that door unlatching by itself without some outside manipulation." Bigelow explained that the handle would have had ...


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