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Childers v. Illinois Central Railroad Co.

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

June 11, 2019

GERALDINE CHILDERS, AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF PHILLIP CHILDERS, DECEASED APPELLANT
v.
ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD COMPANY APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 10/23/2017

          TISHOMINGO COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT HON. PAUL S. FUNDERBURK TRIAL JUDGE

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: PATRICK STEVEN O'BRIEN C.E. SOREY II

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: STEPHANIE CAMILLE REIFERS THOMAS R. PETERS BROOKS E. KOSTAKIS JOHN JENNINGS BENNETT

         EN BANC.

          TINDELL, J.

         ¶1. Geraldine Childers (Childers) filed a Federal Employers' Liability Act claim against Illinois Central Railroad Company in the Tishomingo County Circuit Court for damages associated with the brain cancer and subsequent death of her husband, Phillip Childers (Decedent). During discovery and pursuant to the parties' scheduling order, Childers designated Dr. Leonard White as her sole expert to establish causation between the Decedent's work with Illinois Central and his development of brain cancer. Dr. White then submitted his expert report, which concluded that the Decedent's brain cancer and subsequent death were caused by unhealthy exposure to certain toxins during his employment with the railroad company. Illinois Central filed a motion to exclude Dr. White's expert testimony, followed by a motion for summary judgment predicated upon the exclusion of that testimony. After conducting a hearing on the matter, the circuit court granted both of Illinois Central's motions. Childers appeals the circuit court's decision, arguing that the court erred by excluding Dr. White's testimony and by granting the dispositive motion. Finding no error, we affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. The Decedent worked for Illinois Central as a machine operator from 1971 to 1994. In December 2009, the Decedent developed glioblastoma multiforme, a form of brain cancer, and later died as a result. On November 13, 2012, Childers filed a FELA claim in the circuit court, alleging that the Decedent developed brain cancer as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals and agents and that the Decedent was never given the proper protective equipment to prevent the exposure. Illinois Central answered the complaint, and the parties agreed to a scheduling order. Pursuant to the scheduling order, Childers designated Dr. White as her sole expert for medical causation. Dr. White wrote a report in which he opined that the Decedent's brain cancer stemmed from unhealthy exposure to diesel exhaust and degreasing agents during his employment with Illinois Central. Illinois Central filed a motion to exclude Dr. White's testimony along with a motion for summary judgment depending upon the circuit court's granting its motion to exclude. The circuit court granted Illinois Central's motion to exclude, finding that Dr. White's opinions did not meet the standard set forth in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). The court also granted Illinois Central's motion for summary judgment, finding that because White's testimony was excluded, Childers could not prove causation-a material element of her claim-and as such, no genuine issue of material fact existed. Childers now appeals this judgment.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶3. "Our well-settled standard of review for the admission or suppression of evidence is abuse of discretion." Miss. Transp. Comm'n v. McLemore, 863 So.2d 31, 34 (¶4) (Miss. 2004). The Mississippi Supreme Court has said that "the decision of the trial judge will stand unless we conclude that the decision was arbitrary and clearly erroneous, amounting to an abuse of discretion." Id. (internal quotation mark omitted).

         ¶4. Appellate courts review the grant or denial of a summary-judgment motion de novo, applying the same standard as the trial court. Miss. River Basin All. v. Westphal, 230 F.3d 170, 174 (5th Cir. 2000). "Summary judgments . . . should be granted with great caution" after viewing the evidence most favorably towards the non-moving party. Brown v. Credit Ctr. Inc., 444 So.2d 358, 362-63 (Miss. 1983). After the non-movant has been given the opportunity to raise a genuine factual issue, if no reasonable juror could find for the non-movant, summary judgment will be granted. Miss. River Basin All., 230 F.3d at 174.

         ANALYSIS

         I. FEDERAL EMPLOYERS LIABILITY ACT

         ¶5. Under FELA, railroads are liable for injuries their workers sustain if the injuries are cause by the railroads' reasonably foreseeable negligence. 45 U.S.C. § 51 (2012). FELA is the exclusive remedy for railroad employees who sustain injuries as a result of the negligence of the railroad. Huffman v. Union Pac. R.R., 675 F.3d 412, 416 (5th Cir. 2012). The statute charges railroad companies with the duty to provide reasonably safe work environments for their employees. Id. at 417. "FELA holds railroads to a prudent-person standard of care." Ill. Cent. R.R. Co. v. Brent, 133 So.3d 760, 775 (¶32) (Miss. 2013). However, FELA does not make railroad companies the insurers of their workers' safety. Ellis v. Union Pac. R. Co., 329 U.S. 649, 653 (1947). As such, in order to recover under FELA, workers must have been injured during the course and scope of their employment and by some negligence on the part of the railroad. Id.

         ¶6. Generally, in order to prevail in a FELA case, the plaintiff must prove the same elements as he would in a common-law negligence case. Brent, 133 So.3d at 775 (¶32). The two legal standards diverge, however, on the element of causation. Plaintiffs have a more relaxed burden of proof in FELA cases and are tasked with providing far less evidence than in ordinary negligence cases. Id. at 768 (¶13). But plaintiffs must produce more than a mere scintilla of evidence of causation in order to prevail against their employers under FELA. Id. FELA's relaxed burden for causation is meant to protect plaintiffs' rights to trial, as summary judgment is appropriate "only upon a complete absence of probative facts supporting the plaintiff's claim." Rivera v. Union R.R. Co., 378 F.3d 502, 506 (5th Cir. 2004).

         ¶7. As a general rule, in FELA cases, expert testimony is not necessary. Huffman, 675 F.3d at 419. But this "general rule gives way" where the evidence is beyond the understanding of the average lay juror; in those circumstances, expert testimony is imperative to properly break down the issues. Id. For example, where an injury is fairly self-evident, such as a car accident resulting in a broken limb, the average layman could deduce the resulting injury and its cause. Id. (citing Moody v. Maine Cent. R.R. Co., 823 F.2d 693, 695-96 (1st Cir. 1987)). The causal link between a cancer diagnosis and exposure to harmful toxins, however, often requires the expertise and knowledge of a medical expert. See Illinois Cent. R.R. Co. v. Jackson, 179 So.3d 1037, 1044-45 (¶¶18-19) (Miss. 2015) (noting that plaintiff's causation evidence came solely from two medical experts). Summary judgment is appropriate in the absence of medical expert testimony necessary to prove injury in a FELA cause of action. Id. at 1046 (¶¶22-23) (reversing a denial of summary judgment where the primary medical expert's testimony was deemed hearsay); see also Claar v. Burlington N.R.R. Co., 29 F.3d 499, 504-05 (9th Cir. 1994) (affirming summary judgment where plaintiffs' experts were struck for failure to provide an explainable basis for their conclusions that exposure to workplace chemicals caused the plaintiffs' injuries).

         ¶8. Neither party in the case argues that medical expert testimony was not required to prove causation. This Court understands that the causal link between chemical and toxin exposure and a diagnosis of cancer is beyond the realm of an average lay juror's common knowledge. As such, this Court finds that expert medical testimony was the appropriate means to establish causation in Childers's case.

         II.ILLINOIS CENTRAL'S MOTION ...


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