Huffman vs. Union Pacific, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 5271

John Gus Zgourides

Case Conclusion Date:March 13, 2012

Practice Area:Personal Injury

Outcome:request for rehearing en banc pending as of April 6, 2012

Description:In 2009, John tried and won a unanimous jury verdict in a federal district court for Harold Huffman. The lawsuit was filed in 2007 under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”), asserting that Huffman suffered injuries to his knees as a result of the negligence of his employer, Union Pacific. Unlike workers in most other industries who are covered by “no-fault” workers’ compensation statutes, in order for a railroad worker to receive compensation for an on the job injury he must make a claim under the FELA and prove that his injury resulted “either in whole or in part” from the negligence of his employer. The case was tried to a jury in federal court in Lufkin, Texas. At trial, Huffman offered evidence, including the testimony of a certified ergonomist as well as his treating physician, that established: (i) Mr. Huffman’s job exposed him to risk factors for musculoskeletal disorders of the lower extremities, including the knees, (ii) osteoarthritis, such as that suffered by Mr. Huffman, was caused by wear and tear to knee joints; and (iii) Union Pacific failed to train Mr. Huffman on how to safely perform his job in an ergonomically optimal way and failed to provide a safe workplace. On June 3, 2009, the jury returned a unanimous verdict in favor of Mr. Huffman in the amount of $606,000, concluding that the injuries to his knees were caused, at least in part, by the negligence of the Union Pacific. Union Pacific appealed. Despite the fact that Union Pacific did not dispute on appeal the jury’s determination that it was negligent, on March 13, 2012, in what the dissenting judge termed a "myopic reading of the record that is clearly wrong in itself" Circuit Judges Leslie H. Southwick and Priscilla R. Owen, both judges appointed to the Fifth Circuit by former President George W. Bush, issued a majority opinion on March 13, 2012, in Harold Huffman v. Union Pacific Railroad Co., 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 5271, reversing the jury's unanimous verdict. Judge Southwick, joined by Judge Owen, issued an opinion reversing the jury verdict and ordering that judgment be entered in favor of Union Pacific, holding that “the path from worker injury to employer liability was too broken in this record to allow juror common sense to travel it.” Circuit Judge James L. Dennis, the third judge on the panel, refused to join in the opinion and instead issued a 12 page dissent in which he stated that the majority’s opinion “directly contradicts the FELA standard of causation prescribed by the Supreme Court and the FELA standard of appellate review prescribed by our circuit precedents.” Based largely on Judge Dennis’ dissenting opinion, Mr. Huffman filed a Petition for Rehearing on March 26, 2012, requesting that all 22 judges on the Fifth Circuit review the controversial opinion. According to Judge Dennis’ dissent in the Huffman case, the opinion by Judges Southwick and Owen “flatly contradicts” last year’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in CSX Transportation, Inc. v. McBride, No. 10–235, which reaffirmed the relaxed standard of causation that has been applied to FELA cases for over 50 years. As the Supreme Court stated in McBride, under the FELA “The test of a jury case is simply whether the proofs justify with reason the conclusion that the employer’s negligence played any part, even the slightest, in producing the injury.” A decision from the Fifth Circuit as to whether it will grant a rehearing on the matter is expectedly shortly.