U.S. Court of Appeals Rejects Res Ipsa Shortcut in Railroad Worker Injury Case

Danny Ruark, a machine operator, was working on track maintenance using a hydraulic drill to drill holes in rails. While at work, he clamped the drill to the rail, drilled a hole, retracted the drill bit and unclamped the rig from the rail to move it to the next spot.

However, one day while at work, after finishing a hole, as he bent down to turn off the drill, he heard a boom. Hot fluid sprayed from a broken hydraulic fluid line and onto him, including into his eyes.

He filed a lawsuit against Union Pacific under the Federal Employers Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. Sections 51-60, using the theory of res ipsa loquitur (“the thing speaks for itself”), a legal shortcut in proving negligence.

Ruark argued that because the hydraulic drill was railroad equipment, his claim under the doctrine of res ipsa made Union Pacific negligent under the federal act.

After the discovery process ended, the U.S. District Court judge entered judgment for Union Pacific holding that Ruark did not prove he was free from negligence in operating the drill, which was under his control, not Union Pacific’s.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago, in an opinion written by Judge Ilana Diamond Rovner, affirmed, holding that Ruark controlled the drill and did not prove he was free of negligence that caused his injuries.

Judge Rovner explained that the federal liability act requires proof of some negligence of the employer while the Workers’ Compensation Act does not. The court stated:

“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 Pac. R.R., 352 U.S. 500, 506 (1957).

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.”

The doctrine of res ipsa permits an inference of liability on the part of the defendant if the plaintiff can demonstrate that certain conditions existed making it likely that the defendant was responsible for the injury. The doctrine means ‘the matters speaks for itself’ and thus, as the Supreme Court explained,

‘When a thing which causes injury, without fault of the injured person, is shown to be under the exclusive control of the defendant, and the injury is such, as in the ordinary course of things, does not occur if the one having such control uses proper care, it affords reasonable evidence, in the absence of an explanation, that the injury arose from the defendant’s want of care.’

In affirming the judgment for Union Pacific, it was stated that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur shifts the burden to the defendant and allows the jury to infer negligence. This is not the usual way the legal system proceeds and places a heavy thumb on the plaintiff’s side of the scale.  Before that thumb can be placed, the doctrine requires that a plaintiff make a significant showing that he can eliminate other possible explanations for the injury, aside from the employer’s negligence . . . One of those prerequisites is that ‘the defendant must have exclusive control of all the things used in an operation which might probably have caused injury.’”

In this case, Ruark was correct that there is no evidence that he operated the drill negligently. There need not be. But without a demonstration that Union Pacific had control of the instrumentality of the injury, the doctrine that assumes Union Pacific’s negligence by mere fact of the accident itself will not stand. In conclusion, the court wrote:

“Ruark failed to meet the prerequisites for a res ipsa loquitur instruction, and because this was his sole theory of the case, the district court correctly granted Union Pacific’s motion for judgment as a matter of law.”

It seems clear from the court’s opinion that Ruark’s counsel may not have made a separate count in the alternative for negligence. If he had done that, this case would have most likely survived a motion to dismiss with prejudice.

Ruark v. Union Pacific Railroad Co., 2019 WL 17-2429 (7th Cir. 2019).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling catastrophic injury lawsuits, worker injury cases, construction site worker injury lawsuits and truck accident lawsuits for individuals, families and loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including University Park, Country Club Hills, Morton Grove, Niles, Des Plaines, Schiller Park, Bolingbrook, Plainfield, Wheeling, Buffalo Grove, Chicago (Garfield Park, Polish Village, Jefferson Park, Edgebrook, Edgewater, Lakeview, Andersonville, Uptown, West Ridge, West Town, Little Italy, Ukrainian Village), Melrose Park, Schaumburg, Franklin Park and Maywood, Ill.

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