The opinion of the court was delivered by: Roberts, Justice, For The Court
DATE OF JUDGMENT: 07/02/96
TRIAL JUDGE: HON. WILLIAM F. COLEMAN
COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: HINDS COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT
NATURE OF THE CASE: CIVIL - PERSONAL INJURY
¶1. Gary Wayne Batton (hereinafter Batton) filed a claim against Illinois Central Railroad Company (hereinafter "the Railroad") on June 9, 1994, pursuant to the Federal Employer's Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. § 51, and the Automatic Coupler Act , 45 U.S.C. § 2, which is a Federal Safety Appliance Act (FSAA), for damages received when aligning a drawbar that had failed to automatically couple on impact. The Railroad filed a motion for Summary Judgment on August 14, 1995. The Motion was denied on October 11, 1995. The Railroad later filed a Motion to Reconsider on May 20, 1996, citing Norfolk & W. Ry. Co. v. Hiles, 516 U.S. 400 (1996), in which the Court refused to hold that " a misaligned drawbar is, as a matter of law, a malfunctioning drawbar" and instead recognized that misaligned drawbars are an "inevitable byproduct" of railroad car operations and are not a violation of the FSAA (or the Automatic Coupler Act). Hiles, 516 U.S. at 412 (1996). The Circuit Court of Hinds County granted the motion and dismissed the case on July 2, 1996. Batton filed a Notice of Appeal on August 1, 1996. Batton aggrieved of the lower court's decision, appeals to this Court raising the following issues:
"I. WHETHER THE AUTOMATIC COUPLER ACT IS VIOLATED IF THE COUPLING MECHANISM FAILS TO PERFORM PROPERLY?"
"II. WHETHER THE EXCEPTION TO A RAILROAD'S LIABILITY UNDER THE AUTOMATIC COUPLER ACT, CARVED OUT BY THE UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT IN NORFOLK & W. RY. V. HILES, EXTENDS TO MISALIGNED DRAWHEADS THAT FAIL TO OPERATE PROPERLY?"
"III. WHETHER THE FELA AND THE FACTS OF THIS CASE ENTITLE BATTON TO A JURY DETERMINATION AS TO THE RAILROAD'S VIOLATION OF THE AUTOMATIC COUPLER ACT?"
¶2. On June 20, 1992, Batton was working as a conductor for the Railroad. His crew was making up an outbound train in Track Five at Ferguson Yard, Ferguson, Mississippi. The engineer first shoved the last car in the train, a boxcar, into Track Five. After putting some of the other cars in the train into another track, the last cars on the train were to be put into Track Five to continue making up the outbound train. The last car on the train going into Track Five was a flatcar which was to connect to the boxcar previously shoved into Track Five. Batton was stationed at the boxcar in Track Five waiting for the other cars to be shoved into Track Five.
¶3. Railroad cars are connected by couplers located at each end of the car. The coupler consists of a knuckle joined to the end of a drawbar. The drawbar, or drawhead, extends the knuckle from the car and is designed to move laterally. Lateral movement of the drawhead allows cars to couple on a curved track and also prevents the derailment of cars on curved track. In order for two cars to connect or couple, the open knuckle on one car must engage in an open knuckle on the second car. The knuckles on both the boxcar and the flatcar were open to allow the two cars to couple.
¶4. Batton was the individual solely responsible for making certain that the couplers and drawbars were properly aligned on the cars before the first coupling attempt was made. Batton observed the position of the drawhead on the boxcar and that of the flatcar as it approached him. Even though the couplers on the two cars appeared to be aligned enough to make the coupling, Batton admitted that, in fact, they were a little bit out of alignment. In fact, Batton testified that just before the two couplers came together on the first coupling attempt, the couplers were about four inches out of alignment, which was more than it should have been. This meant that if the coupler knuckle had been four inches further in, the coupling would have been made. This misalignment caused the two couplers to "butt together" or make contact on the wrong part of the couplers which resulted in failure to couple. According to Batton, when the knuckles of the two couplers butted together, this means that they were not aligned to where they could couple automatically. Moreover, it is normal and customary for couplers not to couple where the knuckles of couplers butt together. Batton admitted that other than the couplers being out of alignment, there was nothing else that prevented the cars from coupling. The knuckles on each car were also knocked into a closed position.
¶5. After the couplers butted together on the first attempt to couple, the drawbars had to be moved four to five inches in order to have proper alignment so the cars could couple properly. Batton also had to open each knuckle so that a second coupling attempt could be made. He was successful in opening the knuckle and moving the drawbar on the boxcar without injury. The knuckle on the coupler of the flatcar did not open in the usual manner by merely pulling the pin. Instead, when Batton pulled the pin, it only partially opened the knuckle. Thus, Batton proceeded to manually open the knuckle. He then attempted to push the drawhead back into position. It was at this time that Batton injured his wrist. Since the drawbars were now properly aligned, the second attempt to couple the cars was successful.
I. WHETHER THE AUTOMATIC COUPLER ACT IS VIOLATED IF THE COUPLING MECHANISM FAILS TO PERFORM ...