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Joyce COWAN-JENNINGS, Plaintiff, v. MTA METRO-NORTH RAILROAD, Defendant.
The following e-filed documents, listed by NYSCEF document number (Motion 001) 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38 were read on this motion for DISMISSAL.
This CPLR 3212 summary-judgment motion concerns whether defendant MTA Metro-North Railroad (Metro-North) is liable for injuries its employee, plaintiff Joyce Cowan-Jennings, sustained while working for defendant. Plaintiff's action arises under the Federal Employees Liability Act (FELA), 45 USC § 51 et seq.
Plaintiff, a railroad engineer, was employed by defendant, a common carrier in interstate commerce. (NYSCEF No. 22 at ¶ 3.) Plaintiff alleges two separate injuries.
In her first cause of action, plaintiff claims that in the end of January or beginning of February 2015, she was sitting on a chair at a lunch table in the Track 19 Emergency Room of Grand Central Terminal. (NYSCEF No. 34, ¶¶ 4-5.) This facility is a break room for engineers to relax and eat food while waiting for their next assignment. (See id.) The room measured approximately 15 feet wide by 20 feet long. (NYSCEF No. 26 at 10.)
Plaintiff was assigned to work with student engineer Andrew Wedge (NYSCEF No. 34, ¶ 2.) On the day of the incident, plaintiff and Wedge were on duty, and defendant required plaintiff and Wedge to be stationed in the break room. (See NYSCEF No. 34, ¶ 6.)
The two were seated at a three-foot by five-foot table. Plaintiff testified at deposition that Wedge got up to get his lunch from the microwave, then returned to the table, and as he sat back down into his chair, slid it toward plaintiff, causing his right knee to strike the side of plaintiff's left knee. (NYSCEF No. 25 at 36-39.) Both plaintiff and Wedge testified that Wedge bumped into plaintiff by accident. (Id. at 64; NYSCEF No. 26 at 11.)
In her second cause of action, plaintiff alleges that on or about August 2016, she first experienced pain in her left shoulder because of the work she was doing for defendant. (NYSCEF No. 22, ¶ 14.) Plaintiff alleges that defendant failed to provide a safe place to work. She argues that (1) plaintiff was forced to open train car doors that were not properly maintained, (2) plaintiff had to ascend and descend ladders to the ballast in the yard that were unsafe and (3) plaintiff had to ascend the ladders without a walkway or platform to assist plaintiff to reach the first rung of the ladder in order to enter and exit the train. (Id., ¶ 17.)
Defendant seeks summary judgment under CPLR 3212 on the ground that defendant offers sufficient evidence to eliminate any material issues of fact. (See Zuckerman v City of New York, 49 NY2d 557, 562 .) Alternatively, defendant seeks partial summary judgment on plaintiff's second cause of action on the basis that plaintiff failed to provide proof in support of two of her negligence claims, namely: (1) plaintiff had to ascend and descend ladders to the ballast in the yard that were unsafe and (2) defendant failed to provide a walkway or platform to assist plaintiff to reach the first rung of the ladder in order to enter and exit the train.
Summary judgment is a drastic remedy that deprives a party of an opportunity to have a trial. The court should not grant judgment if any doubt about the existence of triable issues or even arguable issues exist. (De Paris v Women's Nat'l Republican Club, Inc., 148 AD3d 401, 404 [1st Dept 2017].) The movant on a summary-judgment motion must provide evidentiary proof in admissible form to win the judgment. (Kershaw v Hosp. for Special Surgery, 114 AD3d 75, 81 [1st Dept 2013].) When the movant meets this requirement, the burden of proof shifts to the opposing party to prove the existence of material issues of fact. (Id. at 82.)
In FELA actions, “ ‘the plaintiff must prove the traditional common-law elements of negligence: duty, breach, damages, causation and foreseeability’. However, these elements are ‘substantially relaxed’ and ‘negligence is liberally construed to effectuate the statute's broadly remedial intended function.’ ” (Stephney v MTA Metro-N. R.R., 173 AD3d 572, 572 [1st Dept 2019] [internal citations omitted].) FELA claims are almost always subject to a jury trial. (See id. at 572.) But, “the FELA does not make an employer strictly liable for workplace injuries, and therefore requires that employees must at least present some evidence that could support a finding of negligence.” (Grano v Long Is. R.R. Co., 818 F Supp 613, 618 [SD NY 1993] [internal citations omitted].)
A. Summary Judgment Regarding Plaintiff's First Cause of Action
Plaintiff's first cause of action concerns her knee-knocking injury allegedly caused by Metro-North employee Andrew Wedge. To hold an employer liable for one employee injuring another in a FELA action, a plaintiff may establish liability through either the respondeat superior doctrine or direct liability rule. (See Sobieski v Ispat Island, Inc., 413 F3d 628, 635 [7th Cir 2005].)
1. Claim under respondeat superior
Under the respondeat superior doctrine, an employer may be liable for its employee's negligence committed within the course or scope of employment and in furtherance of the employer's business. (See Popadines v Davis, 213 AD 9, 11-12 [1st Dept 1925].)
In defendant's memorandum of law, defendant argues that it is not liable for Wedge injuring plaintiff. It contends that Wedge was not acting within the course of employment when he was preparing to eat his food at the time his chair struck plaintiff's left knee. (See NYSCEF No. 27 at 21.) In opposition, plaintiff argues that (1) Wedge was preparing to have lunch during a work break, and (2) he and plaintiff were both sitting in the break room to which defendant assigned them. (See NYSCEF No. 33, at 3.)
The question here is whether Wedge was working during the course of his employment and in the furtherance of defendant's business at the time when the injury happened. As plaintiff correctly argues, the question of scope of employment is a question for the jury to determine in light of all the surrounding circumstances. (See Riviello v Waldron, 47 NY2d 297, 303 ; Gallose v Long Island R.R. Co., 878 F2d 80, 84 [2d Cir 1989] [“The scope of employment issue may be taken from the jury only when it is clear that ‘reasonable men could not reach differing conclusions.’ ”].) As such, plaintiff may have a viable claim under a respondeat superior theory.
2. Claim under direct negligence
To prevail in a negligence claim under FELA, a plaintiff must prove the traditional common-law elements of negligence: duty, breach, damages, foreseeability, and causation. (See Hyatt v Metro-North Commuter R.R., 16 AD3d 218, 218 [1st Dept 2005].) As to whether an employer's negligence played a part, even though small, in producing plaintiff's injury, it is for the jury to determine the question. (Hairston v Metro-North Commuter R.R., 2 AD3d 127, 128 [1st Dept 2003].) But when evidence of negligence is so thin so that a court could conclude that the negligence could have played no part in an employee's injury, the case is unworthy of submission to a jury. (Pidgeon v Metro-North Commuter R.R., 248 AD2d 318, 319 [1st Dept 1998].)
Defendant argues that (1) plaintiff did not prove the element of foreseeability that defendant should have any knowledge as to any danger with the chair Wedge used; and (2) the contact between Wedge's and plaintiff's knees is not enough to prove liability under FELA. (See NYSCEF No. 27, at 8.)
It is undisputed that the knee knocking was unintentional. (See NYSCEF No. 25, at 39, 40.) But a material issue of fact exists whether defendant could have noticed that a chair in the break room created a risk of injury to its employees. Since defendant did not demonstrate, prima facie, that plaintiff was provided with a safe place to work or prove that the injury to plaintiff's knee was not reasonably foreseeable, the court denies defendant's motion to dismiss plaintiff's claim on the direct negligence liability.
Therefore, defendant has failed to establish that no material issues of fact exist regarding plaintiff's first cause of action. As such, the branch of defendant's motion for summary judgment on plaintiff's first cause of action is denied.
B. Summary Judgment Regarding Plaintiff's Second Cause of Action
Defendant moves for summary judgment to dismiss plaintiff's second cause of action in its entirety. In the alternative, defendant moves for partial summary judgment to dismiss plaintiff's claims that she was (1) injured performing her normal duties as a railroad engineer, including descending and ascending ladders while she was standing on unsafe and uneven ballasts; and (2) injured by walking on uneven ballast with debris.
The moving party bears the initial burden of proving its entitlement to summary judgment as a matter of law with evidentiary proof. (Penava Mech. Corp. v Afgo Mech. Servs., Inc., 71 AD3d 493, 496 [1st Dept 2010], citing Winegrad v New York Univ. Med. Ctr., 64 NY2d 851, 853 .)
Defendant contends that plaintiff has failed to submit any evidence or proof of the foreseeability of plaintiff's injuries and that there is no causation connecting any negligence on its part to the injuries. (See NYSCEF No. 27 at 2.) Defendant further argues that plaintiff does not specify the location of the ballasts or prove in what manner the ballasts or the train's doors were unfit or unsafe. Plaintiff claims that defendant does not prove its entitlement to summary judgment. Plaintiff proffers evidence of a June 2017 safety notice regarding the difficulties with opening the train doors. She also testified that the train's doors are hard to open, especially when air pressure changes. (NYSCEF No. 25 at 77-76.)
Plaintiff offers no evidence for her claims that she was injured while ascending and descending ladders or that she was injured by walking on uneven ballast. Therefore, defendant is entitled to partial summary judgment to dismiss those aspects of plaintiff's second cause of action.
However, defendant cannot overcome the strong policy in favor of jury trials for plaintiff's injuries relating to opening and closing the train doors. Plaintiff provided evidence that defendant was aware of the difficulty opening and closing train doors. (NYSCEF No. 35.) As such, that portion of plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is denied.
Accordingly, it is hereby
ORDERED that the branch of defendant's motion under CPLR 3212 seeking dismissal of plaintiff's first cause of action is denied; and it is further
ORDERED that the branch of defendant's motion under CPLR 3212 seeking dismissal of plaintiff's second cause of action is granted as to plaintiff's claimed ladder-related and ballast-related injuries, and denied as to plaintiff's claimed train-door-related injury.
Gerald Lebovits, J.
Response sent, thank you
Docket No: 151111/2017
Decided: February 22, 2021
Court: Supreme Court, New York County, New York.
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