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Illinois Central Railroad Co. v. Oakes

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

February 15, 2018

ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD COMPANY
v.
BENNIE OAKES, DECEASED, BY AND THROUGH CLARA HAGAN, HIS REPRESENTATIVE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 03/01/2013

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI

         WARREN COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT, TRIAL JUDGE: HON. ISADORE W. PATRICK, JR.

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: TOMMIE G. WILLIAMS MARC A. BIGGERS F. EWIN HENSON, III ROBERT S. UPSHAW CLINTON M. GUENTHER RICHARD C. WILLIAMS, JR. RICHARD L. KIMMEL HUGH GILLON PATRICK M. TATUM JAMES LAWRENCE WILSON, IV STEVEN CAVITT COOKSTON PETER L. CORSON CHARLES CAMERON AUERSWALD TOMMIE GREGORY WILLIAMS, JR. WILLIAM LOCK MORTON, III

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: GLENN F. BECKHAM HARRIS FREDERICK POWERS, III

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: HENRY DEAN ANDREWS, JR. TIMOTHY W. PORTER PATRICK MALOUF JOHN TIMOTHY GIVENS

          COLEMAN, JUSTICE

         ¶1. The issue presented in the instant case is whether the defendant is entitled to a setoff for money already paid to the plaintiff for the same injuries alleged to have been caused by the defendant. It is not, as treated by the dissent, a case about apportionment of fault amongst different tortfeasors. As described by Illinois Central, who as appellant framed the issues for appeal, "This case is about whether, once those damages are assessed by a jury, a railroad company under the [Federal Employers' Liability Act] is entitled to a credit or reduction of that verdict for sums that have already been paid by others to the Plaintiff for the same injuries and damages." In Illinois Central's answer, it raised an affirmative defense that "it is entitled to apportionment or set off liability and/or damages for any negligence of or damages caused by third parties, including but not limited to other employers and manufacturers, distributors, and sellers of products to which plaintiff claims the decedent was exposed as alleged in the complaint." However, Illinois Central later clarified its position that it was not attempting to have negligence apportioned, and the circuit court echoed the clarification by stating that Illinois Central had not "tried to use a third, an empty chair for any other defendants."

         ¶2. The Court of Appeals issued an opinion affirming the Warren County Circuit Court's denial of Illinois Central Railroad's request for a setoff of a jury verdict awarded to Bennie Oakes through his representative Clara Hagan. We hold that the Court of Appeals misconstrued the primary case it relied upon and ignored other federal precedent; therefore, we reverse the Court of Appeals' judgment and the circuit court's denial of Illinois Central's motion for a setoff. We remand for proceedings consistent with our opinion.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶3. On February 13, 2009, Clara Hagan filed a complaint, as the representative of Bennie Oakes, against Illinois Central in the Warren County Circuit Court. The complaint, brought under the provisions of the Federal Employers Liability Act, [1] sought to recover damages for "personal injuries and/or death sustained by Bennie Oak[e]s, deceased, while [Oakes] was employed by [Illinois Central] and while engaging in interstate commerce."

         ¶4. Oakes had been an employee of Illinois Central from 1952 through 1994 and "was exposed to asbestos on a daily basis." The complaint contained allegations that:

As a result of his exposure to asbestos containing products and materials, [Oakes] has developed asbestosis, lung cancer, shortness of breath, reduced lung function, cough, chest congestion, and is at increased risk to develop one or more of the following diseases: mesothelioma, asbestos related pleural disease, mixed dust pneumoconiosis, sleep interruption, aggravation of preexisting and co-existing disease, throat cancer, laryngeal cancer, colon, stomach, and other asbestos related cancer.

         According to the complaint, due to Illinois Central's negligence in exposing Oakes to asbestos daily, Oakes incurred injury and damages.

         ¶5. The first trial occurred in 2011 but resulted in a hung jury. The jury in the second trial found in favor of Hagan and awarded $250, 000 in damages; however, the jury also apportioned fault, with Illinois Central being twenty percent at fault and Oakes being eighty percent at fault. Therefore, the circuit court adjusted the damages accordingly, and the total award was $50, 000. Illinois Central filed a Motion for Entry of Judgment and Setoff to have the damages reduced further based on its discovery that Hagan had received more than $65, 000 in payments from asbestos trusts for Oakes's injuries and death. The circuit court denied Illinois Central's motion and entered the judgment of $50, 000 plus eight percent interest.

         ¶6. Illinois Central appealed, and the case was assigned to the Court of Appeals. Writing for the Court of Appeals, Judge Greenlee framed the issue on appeal as "whether setoff against a jury verdict is required in [Federal Employers' Liability Act] cases where the claimant has already settled with separate tortfeasors." Illinois Cent. R.R. Co. v. Oakes, 2016 WL 7647571, *1 (¶ 4) (Miss. Ct. App. Dec. 13, 2016). The Court of Appeals held:

Because an injured railroad employee can recover all his damages from his railroad employer if the employer's negligence caused any part of the employee's injury, and because the collateral source rule does not allow for a defendant to avoid payment of damages based on compensation to the plaintiff from a third party that was not a party to the action, we find that an allowance of setoff for recoveries from nonparty tortfeasors is inconsistent with the [Federal ...

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