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Ruark v. Union Pacific Railroad Co.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

February 20, 2019

Danny R. Ruark, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Union Pacific Railroad Company, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued December 5, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. No. 3:14-cv-00329-DRH-RJD - David R. Herndon, Judge.

          Before Flaum, Rovner, and Scudder, Circuit Judges.

          ROVNER, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         The Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. §§ 51-60, was enacted more than a hundred years ago to compensate railroad employees for injuries they receive on the job. Ruark was an employee of the Union Pacific Railroad when a hydraulic rail drill malfunctioned and sprayed him with hot oil. He sought relief under FELA using the legal doctrine of "res ipsa loquitur," a doctrine that asks a finder of fact to infer liability when (as the Latin is often translated) "the thing speaks for itself." Because of the burden-shifting nature of the doctrine, it requires some baseline conditions-namely that the defendant was in control of the instrumentality that caused the injury and that the plaintiff was not also negligent. The district court found that these conditions were not met and thus the jury should not be instructed that they could assume that "the matter spoke for itself" under the doctrine. We agree and find that the district court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to grant Ruark a continuance before trial. We affirm on both points.

         I.

         On September 22, 2013, Ruark was working as a machine operator on rail maintenance on the Union Pacific Railroad using a hydraulic rail drill to drill holes into the rails. To use the drill, the operator clamps it in place on the rail and then uses a lever to start the drill. When the drill is finished, the operator pushes the lever back to stop the drill and retract the bit, and then unclamps it from the rail. The drill is powered by hydraulics which requires that it connect to machinery by hoses carrying fluid. Ruark began working at six o'clock in the morning and was involved in hooking the drill up to the hydraulic lines before the work began. He used the drill throughout the day, attaching it to the rail, pushing the lever to start the drilling, pushing the lever to stop the drill and retract it, and then detaching it from the rail. Ruark used the machine to drill five or six holes that day, including the last one, and had not noticed any leaking hydraulic fluid or other malfunction. As he drilled the last hole, Ruark reached down to retract the drill bit out of the hole and turn the drill off when he heard a "boom." [1] Hot fluid sprayed over him, including in his eyes. Ruark jerked upward, twisted, and stumbled backward. After Ruark informed his supervisor that the drill had exploded, the supervisor gave him napkins to wipe off the oil and Ruark declined further medical attention. The supervisor sent him home to clean up and told him to return to work the next day and report how he was feeling. Ruark returned to work the following day, but did not participate in much of the work, because, as he stated at his deposition, "it hurt too bad." Ruark's Short App. at 88. Ruark went home that evening and made an appointment to see his regular nurse practitioner the next day. The form he completed at her office stated that he was experiencing "sinus and stomach problems." Ruark's Short App. at 125. Ruark did not return to work after September 23 and was pulled out of service a few days later because he had been convicted of a felony unrelated to the workplace accident. On October 2, Ruark completed an accident report form based on the September 22 incident. On March 13, 2014, Ruark filed suit under FELA claiming injuries from the incident with the rail drill.

         Ruark began a prison sentence a short while later (on June 28, 2016), a fact we note because it interrupted Ruark's representation and trial preparation. Two months into Ruark's incarceration (the end of August, 2016), his first set of lawyers moved to withdraw, asserting that it was impossible to represent him in this tort matter while he was incarcerated. His new counsel took over a few months later (early December, 2016) and the district court scheduled a pretrial conference for the end of February. At that conference, the judge denied a pending motion for a continuance, reasoning that the case had been pending for almost three years, Ruark had been well represented by his initial counsel, he had been given a normal scheduling order, and the fact of his incarceration was not cause to reopen exhausted deadlines and allow Ruark to begin the discovery process anew. Despite the denial, the district court judge did permit some planned discovery to continue. He allowed Ruark's counsel to take his client's trial testimony by video deposition and to depose Ruark's treating physician. He also stated that he would consider a new motion to reopen discovery once a trial date was set and the new counsel became more familiar with the case. Ruark's lawyer, however, did not pursue that option. The trial began on June 13, 2017. Ruark proceeded on a theory of negligence based on res ipsa loquitur. Once the district court determined that the plaintiff had not met the requirements for use of the doctrine, it granted Union Pacific's motion for judgment as a matter of law, on June 14, 2017, a ruling which we review de novo. Martin v. Milwaukee Cty., 904 F.3d 544, 550 (7th Cir. 2018). Judgment as a matter of law is proper if "a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue." Id. (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1)). We review the district court's decision to deny the motions for a continuance and to reopen discovery for an abuse of discretion.

         II.

         A. Judgment as a matter of law on the FELA claim.

         This case involves an interplay between FELA and the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. While FELA provides the cause of action under federal statute for injuries received while in the employ of the railroad, the plaintiff here, Ruark, went about hoping to prove that liability by using the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. Res ipsa loquitur describes not a substantive claim, but a manner of proceeding on that claim. As we will describe in more detail below, it is "a shortcut to a negligence claim." Blasius v. Angel Auto., Inc., 839 F.3d 639, 649 (7th Cir. 2016) (citing Maroules v. Jumbo, Inc., 452 F.3d 639, 642 (7th Cir. 2006)). Thus whether Ruark could proceed below depended on whether he had met the prerequisites for a res ipsa claim. In short, FELA provides the substantive framework for Ruark's claim but the evidentiary theory under which he opted to proceed is that rail drills do not, in the ordinary course of events, spray oil on their users. As we will discuss, the cost of admission to this plaintiff-friendly, burden-shifting doctrine requires a plaintiff to make some significant preliminary showings.

         As for FELA, it may be true, as Ruark argues, that FELA requires a lower threshold for submitting matters to the jury. FELA is a remedial statute, lowering the burden of proof so that an employee might meet it if "employer negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury." Rogers v. Missouri Vac. R.R., 352 U.S. 500, 506 (1957); Brown v. Burlington N. Santa Fe Ry. Co., 765 F.3d 765, 771 (7th Cir. 2014).

         This lowered threshold, however, does not mean that an employer is responsible for any injury that occurs in the course of employment. As the Supreme Court explained:

That FELA is to be liberally construed, however, does not mean that it is a workers' compensation statute. We have insisted that FELA does not make the employer the insurer of the safety of his employees while they are on duty. The basis of his liability is his negligence, not the fact that injuries occur.

Consol. Rail Corp. v. Gottshall, 512 U.S. 532, 543-44, 114 S.Ct. 2396, 2404 (1994) (internal citations ...


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