The Illinois Appellate Court has upheld a record-breaking $21.4 million jury verdict for a railroad conductor after his heel was irreparably damaged at a railyard.
The Illinois Appellate Court for the 1st District rejected all of Norfolk Southern Railway Co.’s attempts to either vacate or reduce the verdict signed by the jury in favor of the plaintiff, Michael Parsons.
Parsons’s November 2015 jury verdict was the largest reported verdict or settlement for a heel-related injury in Cook County. Norfolk Southern was unable to persuade the 1st District Illinois Appellate Court that the jury’s verdict went against the evidence and that the defendant railroad was prejudiced by the jury instructions.
Norfolk Southern also argued that the $21.4 verdict was excessive for a foot (heel) injury, pointing out the fact that Parsons can drive, has a higher-paying job and lives without a caretaker.
However, the appeals panel detailed at length how catastrophic Parsons’s injury was and how he will be permanently affected by that injury.
“The jury heard largely unrebutted evidence about the severity of plaintiff’s injury, recurring complications in his recovery, his ongoing pain, permanent disability and expected future health problems,” said Justice Joy V. Cunningham in her written opinion. “In light of that evidence, we cannot say that the jury’s award was unreasonable, resulted from passion or prejudice, or shocks the conscience.”
As a trained conductor, Parsons frequently rode on the train cars and directed them at the 51st Street rail yard in Chicago.
In January 2011, Norfolk Southern notified all employees that it had rearranged some of the switches at one end of the track. Parsons was aware of the notice, but he said he didn’t know that, as a result of the changes, the distance between two parallel tracks shortened by 18 inches from 12 feet to 10 ½ feet.
It was because of that change that Parsons had, in the words of one of his doctors, his heel bone “broken completely off” and the “bottom of the foot was basically peeled off of the foot.”
Flesh from Parsons’ thigh was grafted onto his heel. But since 2013, his wound has reopened, preventing him from putting weight on his foot. His doctor testified that he will be at risk for amputation and infection for the rest of his life.
The Parsons lawsuit was brought under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) in the Circuit Court of Cook County in September 2011.
Several jury instructions and special interrogatories were issued to the jury in the November 2015 trial. Instruction 19 was about the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) regulation on minimum track clearance. Instruction 27 said that, as a railroad employee, Parsons had undertaken no risk if his injury was the result of negligence by the railroad or its employees.
Meanwhile, Special Interrogatory No. 1 was a series of questions to the jury on whether it believed that the reconstruction work on the tracks violated ICC rules and was responsible for Parsons’s injuries. Of the $21,474,102 of the jury verdict that was entered on Nov. 19, 2015, $19 million was itemized for pain and suffering disability. Parsons’s award was lowered by $1 million in April 2016 after Norfolk Southern argued in post-trial proceedings that the jury verdict was excessive; the $1 million came out of the $1.1 million Parsons was awarded for lost earnings.
The appeals panel noted that a jury’s verdict will only be overturned if it abused its discretion. “The jury could find that plaintiff’s conduct was reasonable, given to leave the car south of the clearance point during switching operations and for conductors to ride cars between switches and clearance points. It is not our role to second-guess the jury’s credibility determinations and factual findings.”
Norfolk Southern argued that the wording of Instruction 19 and 27 and this Special Interrogatory No.1 prejudiced the railroad. The appeals panels rejected the railroad’s claim that the $21.4 million verdict was improperly itemized.
Parsons was represented at trial and for the appeal by attorneys John W. Power and Michael W. Rathsack.
Michael Parsons v. Norfolk Southern Railway Company, 2017 IL App (1st) 161384.
Kreisman Law Offices has been successfully handling catastrophic injury lawsuits, traumatic brain injury cases, automobile accident cases, motorcycle accident cases, bicycle accident cases and truck crash cases for individuals, families and the loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the negligence of another for more than 40 years, in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including New Lenox, Hickory Hills, Alsip, Harvey, Calumet City, Orland Park, Burr Ridge, Countryside, Western Springs, Chicago (Garfield Park, Polish Village, Brighton Park, Marquette Park, Englewood, North Lawndale, Beverly, Pullman, Riverdale, Lake Calumet), Brookfield, LaGrange and Hinsdale, Ill.
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