Summary Judgment Upheld by 3rd Circuit in Negligence Suit

Regardless of the issue at law, parties in a civil suit can halt further litigation by obtaining a motion for summary judgment. The party seeking summary judgment, known as the movant, must show there is no genuine issue of material fact despite the allegations asserted by the non-moving party. The court will consider a fact “material” if “its existence potentially insures or precludes recovery, affects a litigant’s ultimate success, or determines the outcome of the relevant legal dispute.” Furthermore, a fact will be deemed at issue “if there exists any reasonable doubt as to its existence.”

On July 12, 2006, Raymond Alex, Sr. (hereinafter “plaintiff”) was driving his employer’s, BNSF Railway Company (hereinafter “defendant”), truck south on North Eastern Avenue in Crowley when he was rear-ended by a large tractor-trailer rig driven by Edward Zenon, Jr. (hereinafter “Mr. Zenon”) of Creole Fermentation Industries, Inc. The plaintiff alleged the accident injured his neck and caused radiating pain down his right arm into his hand. His recovery consisted of neck injections and surgery.

Interestingly, the plaintiff signed off on the operating condition of the truck before driving it and after the accident signed a report admitting the defendant was not to blame for his injuries.

The plaintiff first sought recovery for his injuries from Mr. Zenon, his employer, and the lessor of the truck. The petition cited Mr. Zenon’s negligence as the “sole cause of the instant incident.” Ultimately, the two parties settled.

Even though the plaintiff settled with Mr. Zenon and admitted the defendant was not responsible, he filed a second suit against the defendant pursuant to the Federal Employer’s Liability Act ( hereinafter “FELA”). To successfully recover under FELA, a plaintiff must establish that (1) he was injured within the scope of his employment; (2) the employment was in furtherance of the railroad’s commerce in interstate transportation; (3) his employer was negligent; and (4) this negligence played a part in causing his injury. The plaintiff specifically alleged that (i) the seats on the inside of the truck were dry-rotted, (ii) the shocks “weren’t a hundred percent” and (iii) the boom on the truck did not always operate properly. Despite these allegations, the plaintiff agreed that the defendant’s truck was “pretty crashworthy” as it suffered only minimal damage.

On summary judgment the trial court determined there was no evidence pointing to the conclusion that the condition of the truck played any role in the alleged injury even though it is well accepted under FELA that the plaintiff carries an easier burden than usual in getting his claim in front of a jury.

The plaintiff appealed to the Third Circuit Court who also found no merit in his argument. Appellate courts review summary judgments “de novo” and re-evaluate the issues regardless of the trial court’s ruling. During the appeal the plaintiff testified that the truck’s lack of a headrest “maybe” contributed to his injuries. The appellate court was not persuaded by the plaintiff’s arguments labeling them self-serving and not based on credible evidence. Accordingly, the trial court’s ruling was affirmed.

This case provides future plaintiffs a valuable reminder that a claim will only be successful if it is based on credible evidence. It’s not difficult to overcome a motion for summary judgment as a non-moving party is not required to prove each element of their claim but rather must only establish that proof exists. When meeting with an attorney, clients should be forthright about the facts surrounding their claim in order to determine whether it will survive a motion for summary judgment.

If you have been injured call the Berniard Law Firm today and speak with an experienced attorney immediately.