Trial Court Should Have Been Reversed for Erroneous Jury Instruction in FELA Case

Plaintiffs usually fare well in FELA cases, which provide compensation for railroad employees injured on the job. Unlike state workers compensation systems, however, which are no-fault systems, under FELA, the plaintiff must prove some negligence on the part of the railroad in causing the injury. In Spencer v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co. 2014 Tenn. LEXIS 626 (8/29/14), the plaintiff injured his back when he threw a switch. The trial court told the jury that the plaintiff had to prove the railroad knew or should have known on the day of the incident that the switch was not operating properly. The jury found in favor of the railroad, and the plaintiff appealed. The Tennessee Court of Appeals found the jury instruction was erroneous and reversed, granting the plaintiff a new trial. Surprisingly, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated the jury verdict in favor of the railroad, finding the erroneous instruction to have been “substantially accurate.” The Supreme Court acknowledged that the instruction could have been given more precisely and suggested that the jury should have been instructed to determine whether the railroad knew or should have known at a time sufficiently before the incident such that it could have taken action to prevent or ameliorate the incident. But that was no help to the injured plaintiff, who will get not a second chance to prove his FELA case, and who will receive no compensation for his back injuries.