U.S. Court of Appeals Affirms Causation Argument Where There Was Sufficient Facts to Support the Theory of Causation

Brian Crompton worked as a railroad employee for BNSF Railway.  On April 24, 2011, Crompton worked on a locomotive that was to travel from Paducah, Ky., to downstate Centralia, Ill.  Crompton was severely injured during the trip from Paducah when he was knocked off the train by a door that flew open when he was throwing a switch.  Crompton brought a lawsuit against BNSF under the Locomotion Inspection Act and the Federal Employment Liability Act (FELA) claiming that BNSF chose not to keep the locomotive and its parts in good working order.

BNSF moved for summary judgment on both counts of the complaint, which was denied by the U.S. District Court judge who found that Crompton had presented sufficient evidence to suggest that the door latch on the front cab door was defective and thus the case could go to the jury for its determination of the facts.

After the jury trial, BNSF was found negligent, and Crompton was found to be contributory negligent.  The jury found that 70% of the fault for Crompton’s injury could be assigned to BNSF and 30% to Crompton.  Because the Locomotive Inspection Act is a strict liability statute, BNSF was required to pay the entire amount of Crompton’s damages, which totaled $1.6 million.  BNSF appealed to the U.S Court of Appeals in Chicago.

In its appeal, BNSF challenged the sufficiency of Crompton’s evidence. The appeals panel summarized the competing theories of the case.  The panel noted that Crompton had argued that the latch of the front cab door was defective, which caused it to open without any action by him while the train was in motion.  BNSF, on the other hand, maintained that Crompton had chosen not to properly latch the door, which is the reason it opened.

In the appellate court’s decision, it cited Lavender v. Kurn when competing theories of causation were presented; it is not the job of the panel to determine which theory is more plausible. The appeals court also stated that the jury’s verdict must stand as long as the facts exist to support its conclusion.

In this case, Crompton had submitted trial testimony from several BNSF employees who testified that they had also experienced sudden unlatching of the cab doors to similar locomotives and that BNSF was aware of that problem.

On the other hand, the panel of justices made note of the fact that as a matter of physics, Crompton’s theory was implausible as the door’s counterweighted handle would have to move upwards against gravity in order to unlatch the door.  Still, the panel noted that BNSF did not present any evidence to contradict Crompton’s theory.  Because evidence did exist to support the jury’s conclusion and BNSF had not presented sufficient evidence to disprove Crompton’s theory of causation, the court of appeals affirmed the decision of the district court and the jury’s verdict stands.

Brian Crompton v. BNSF Railway Co., No. 13-1686 (7th Cir., March 12, 2014).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling work injury cases, product defect cases and injury cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 38 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Country Club Hills, Vernon Hills, Western Springs, Willow Springs, Riverside, Wheeling, Rolling Meadows, Palatine, Olympia Fields, Hinsdale, Hickory Hills, Buffalo Grove, Calumet Park, Calumet Heights, Chicago Heights and Cicero, Ill.

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