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Spencer v. Norfolk Southern Ry.

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Knoxville

August 29, 2014

ANDREW SPENCER
v.
NORFOLK SOUTHERN RAILWAY COMPANY

Session Heard at Cookeville [1] May 28, 2014

Tenn. R. App. P. 11 Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Court of Appeals Reversed. Appeal by Permission from the Court of Appeals, Eastern Section Circuit Court for Hamilton County. No. 10C1029. W. Jeffrey Hollingsworth, Judge.

Judgment of the Court of Appeals Reversed.

Craig R. Allen and Benjamin T. Reese, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellant, Norfolk Southern Railway Company.

John A. Moss and John D. Steel, Admitted Pro Hac Vice, Atlanta, Georgia; John A. Day, Brentwood, Tennessee; and Michael E. Richardson, Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the appellee, Andrew Spencer.

GARY R. WADE, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which JANICE M. HOLDER, CORNELIA A. CLARK, WILLIAM C. KOCH, JR., and SHARON G. LEE, JJ., joined.

OPINION

GARY R. WADE, C.J.

Page 508

The plaintiff, who was injured while pulling a switch for his employer, Norfolk Southern Railway, filed suit for negligence under the Federal Employers' Liability Act. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendant railroad. The Court of Appeals, ruling that the trial court had provided an erroneous jury instruction, reversed the jury verdict and granted the plaintiff a new trial. Because we find that the instruction qualifies as " substantially accurate" in the context of the entire charge, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and reinstate the verdict of the jury.

OPINION

I. Facts and Procedural History

On May 16, 2010, Andrew Spencer (the " Plaintiff" ), an employee of Norfolk Southern Railway Company (the " Railroad" ), seriously injured his back when he threw a switch in the rail yard in an effort to move

Page 509

a section of track. The Plaintiff sued the Railroad under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (" FELA" ), 45 U.S.C. § § 51-60 (2006), alleging that the Railroad was negligent because it knew or should have known that the switch was not operating properly and failed to take adequate precautionary measures to ensure safe working conditions.

Prior to trial, the Plaintiff and the Railroad each requested special jury instructions with respect to the Railroad's knowledge of the condition of the switch. The trial court conferred with counsel in an effort to prepare proper instructions but the Plaintiff objected to the trial court's proposed instruction on notice. The trial court overruled that objection and also denied the special notice instructions sought by the Plaintiff and the Railroad. At the conclusion of the proof, the trial court provided the following instruction:

In this case [the Plaintiff] must prove that [the Railroad], [(1)] knew or should have known that on the day of the incident the switch was not operating properly; [(2)] that the switch was not operating properly because of [the Railroad's] negligence in failing to properly maintain the switch; and, [(3)] . . . that the incident on May 16, 2010[,] caused the injury the [P]laintiff claims to have suffered.
. . . .
The [R]ailroad is said to have notice of an unsafe work condition if it actually knows or reasonably should have known of the unsafe condition based on . . . complaints, letters, petitions, reasonable investigations[,] and safety meetings.
In this case the [P]laintiff must show that with due care [the Railroad] knew or should have known that on the day of the incident the switch was not operating properly. If you find [that the Railroad] knew or should have known that the conditions in which [the Plaintiff] worked could cause injury to him and ...

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