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Paluch v. Erie Lackawanna Railroad Co.

decided: January 3, 1968.

PAUL P. PALUCH, APPELLANT,
v.
ERIE LACKAWANNA RAILROAD COMPANY



McLaughlin, Hastie and Forman, Circuit Judges. Gerald McLaughlin, Circuit Judge (dissenting).

Author: Forman

Opinion OF THE COURT

FORMAN, Circuit Judge.

Appellant, Paul P. Paluch, brought this action in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey under the Federal Employers' Liability Act*fn1 against his employer, Erie Lackawanna Railroad Company (Railroad), to recover damages for injuries sustained in the course of his employment. The jury rendered a verdict for the appellant. Attacking the verdict, principally on the ground of its gross inadequacy, the appellant sought a new trial. From the order of the District Court denying the motion for a new trial, appellant brought this appeal.*fn2 Appellant raises two issues: first, he renews his contention that the verdict is grossly inadequate, and second, he argues that the verdict is contrary to law.

The essential factual background is that appellant, aged 52, at the time of his accident on February 13, 1964, was employed as a signalman. He was one of a crew of workmen under the direction of a foreman, William Brickman, who was to remove wires from telegraph poles along the Railroad's right of way on the Boonton Branch west of its station at Paterson.

Appellant was assigned to the task of cutting the wires attached to cross arms at the top of a pole 29 feet high. He had never performed such work and was unfamiliar with the condition of the pole. Appellant inquired from Mr. Brickman, who was long experienced, whether the pole was safe. He was assured that it was. Thereupon he mounted the pole, stationed himself at one of the cross arms and cut each of the wires attached thereto pursuant to a signal given him by Mr. Brickman. The wires were simultaneously cut from another pole and when thus freed they were conducted by other workers to a truck equipped with a winch, which wound the removed wires on a reel. As appellant cut the last wire the pole toppled to the ground with appellant still clinging to its side.

The pole that fell was known as a "dead end" pole. Wires ran to it and then down to a relay case in the ground. The evidence indicated that the pole which appellant was required to climb was rotted and completely severed at ground level. A "stub" pole had been driven beside it and was lashed to it with wire in order to support it. Mr. Brickman testified that on the day before the accident he went to the job site to inspect the condition of the pole. He stated that he pushed the pole back and forth and also stuck his penknife into the stub pole at ground level. From his tests he concluded that the pole was safe to climb. After the accident it was learned that the stub pole too had rotted just below the ground level.

As a result of the fall, appellant was rendered unconscious for about seven hours. One of the step spikes on the pole penetrated his face fracturing his cheekbone; his right tibia was also fractured resulting in a permanent onequarter inch shortening of the leg; he sustained a concussion with minute hemorrhages within the brain tissue. Appellant was confined in a hospital as a result of these injuries for 28 days. He testified that among the effects of his injury his right wrist, which was sprained by the fall, swells when he attempts to climb a ladder; that he still suffers from dizziness when he bends too far forward or backward; and that he has difficulty concentrating because of a burning sensation in his head and ringing in his ears.

Seven months after the accident appellant returned to work. His loss of wages during that period totalled $3,636.80, and together with the medical expenses he personally incurred, it was shown that his out of pocket expenses amounted to at least $4,210.55. The verdict the jury returned was for $6,000.

The Federal Employers' Liability Act provides that contributory negligence shall not be a bar to recovery under the Act. If an employee is shown to have been contributorily negligent then the jury shall be instructed to diminish the damages recoverable in proportion to the employee's negligence.*fn3 The District Judge submitted the case to the jury with these instructions on the issue of damages.

In maintaining that the verdict was contrary to law, appellant asserts that the Railroad "made no reference to any act of contributory negligence on the part of the plaintiff, nor did it present any proof of it." In a case such as this, under the Federal Employers' Liability Act, the burden of proving contributory negligence is, of course, on the Railroad.*fn4 The entire record has been scrutinized to determine the validity of appellant's position that the Railroad failed to establish any contributory negligence. The evidence clearly indicated that appellant was totally inexperienced in the work he was instructed to undertake. He was justified in relying on the experience of his superior, Mr. Brickman, who was in complete control of the work crew. Mr. Brickman indicated to appellant that he had tested the pole and found it to be safe. As it turned out, the stub pole, as well as the main pole, was rotted below the surface level. If Mr. Brickman, a man of experience, did not discover the defect, there is no ground to assert that the appellant was contributorily negligent on the basis that he did not find the pole defective, a contention advanced by the Railroad. Certainly, it is not contributory negligence to fail to discover a danger when there is no reason to apprehend one.*fn5 From the evidence presented at the trial of this case, a jury could not properly find a lack of due care by the appellant. It was, therefore, fundamental and prejudicial error for the District Court to charge the jury on the issue of contributory negligence and its diminishing effect upon any verdict it might find in favor of appellant.*fn6

Counsel for appellant, however, failed to seasonably object to the District Judge's charge on contributory negligence. It was not until the oral argument in support of the motion for a new trial that counsel for appellant argued that no proof had been offered by which appellant could be found contributorily negligent. In denying the motion for a new trial the District Judge declined to rule as a matter of law that there was no contributory negligence. Indeed, he took occasion then to allude to the probable finding by the jury of contributory negligence as the reason for the verdict of $6,000.

Rule 51 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, 28 U.S.C.*fn7 has not been overlooked. It generally prevents a party from assigning as error on appeal an instruction to the jury when no objection to the instruction was made prior to the jury's retirement. A purpose of the rule is to assure the trial court an opportunity to make appropriate correction of its rulings and instructions.*fn8 The lapse of appellant's counsel in failing to comply with the rule is not to be encouraged. Nevertheless, this court has declined to permit such a technicality to cause a miscarriage of justice.*fn9 In Freifield v. Hennessy, 353 F.2d 97, 99 (3 Cir. 1965), the court stated:

"Where it is apparent on the face of the record that counsel failed to object to a fundamental and highly prejudicial error, and this failure may have resulted in a miscarriage of justice, the error must be noticed and rectified."

Thus, in rare instances, where fundamental error occasions a miscarriage of justice, this court will notice such error despite counsel's failure to comply with Rule 51.*fn10 The charge to the jury in this case on an issue on which no evidence had been offered was such fundamental error. Allowing the jury to speculate on contributory negligence and thereby possibly to diminish the compensation recoverable, under the circumstances of this case, was a miscarriage of justice.

This fundamental error compels a new trial. It is therefore unnecessary for the court to consider appellant's contention as to ...


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