Court Upholds Verdict in FELA Matter in Face of Limitations Argument But Vacates Damages Award and Remands

In this negligence actions brought under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), the Appellate Court of Illinois, Fourth District, affirmed the jury’s verdict against defendant Illinois Central Railroad Company (Central) but vacated the award of damages and remanded for a new damages hearing. In 2003, Paul McGowan was diagnosed with lung cancer and died. In December 2008, his estate filed a 13-count complaint seeking damages from various defendants as a result of Mr. McGowan’s lung cancer and death. Count IV of the complaint was for damages under the FELA (45 U.S.C.A. §§ 51-60), alleging that Mr. McGowan had worked for Central, where he was exposed to asbestos as a result of Central’s negligence, which caused his lung cancer and resulting death.

In February 2015, a jury trial began on the FELA count against Central. Prior to trial, Central moved to dismiss arguing that the claims were brought outside the three year statute of limitations period provided by section 56 of FELA. The trial court denied that motion. At trial, after the close of the plaintiffs’ evidence, Central moved for directed verdict under section 2-1202 of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure again arguing that the claim was barred by the statute of limitations. The motion was denied because the court concluded the jury should determine factual issues that control when the statute of limitations began to run. After presenting its case, Central again moved for directed verdict on the issue and the court again denied. The trial court held a jury instruction conference on issues of the statute of limitations and damages. The court denied the instructions tendered by Central on those issues and, instead, granted and gave the instructions tendered by the plaintiffs. Also, the court sent the jury a special interrogatory: “Was the complaint filed within three years from the date on which the estate’s administrator knew, or reasonably should have known both a death occurred and that the death was wrongfully caused?” The jury answered the interrogatory in the affirmative and returned a verdict for the plaintiffs and against Central. The jury awarded the plaintiffs $3,452,500 in damages, $2,055,833 of which was awarded for pecuniary losses suffered by Mr. McGowan’s family as a result of his death. The jury found further that Mr. McGowan was contributorily negligent in the amount of 10 percent, which reduced the award to $3,107,250. The trial court later entered judgment on the jury’s verdict. In April 2015, Central filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. In September 2015, after conducting hearings, the trial court denied the motion, except as to the issue of a setoff and, accordingly, the court reduced the damages award to $2,940,583.

Central appealed on two main issues, the statute of limitations and damages. Central’s arguments regarding the statute of limitations fell into two main arguments: 1) issues of law concerning the content of the special interrogatory and the jury instructions; and 2) issues of fact concerning whether the jury’s interrogatory finding that the plaintiffs’ claim complied with the statute of limitations was against the manifest weight of the evidence. The court rejected these arguments. First, as to the special interrogatory, Central argued that the special interrogatory did not accurately describe the statute of limitations. The court disagreed saying the interrogatory properly described the law, and moreover, the argument failed because Central itself tendered the interrogatory in the trial court and under the invited error rule a party cannot complain of error that it brought about or participated in. Next, as to whether the jury’s “yes” finding was against the manifest weight of the evidence, the court explained that Mr. McGowan was diagnosed with lung cancer and died in December 2003 and that he had no duty to investigate the cause of his cancer while on his death bed. Further, testimony established that Mr. McGowan’s family did not know that he worked around asbestos until 2008, and the complaint was filed later that year. Therefore, the jury’s finding that the claim was filed “within three years from the date on which the estate’s administrator knew, or reasonably should have known that death was wrongfully caused” was not unreasonable or arbitrary and was based on the evidence. The court also rejected Central’s arguments concerning the jury instructions for failing to object accordingly at trial, thereby forfeiting the argument.

As to damages, Central argued that the court abused its discretion by instructing the jury that, should the jury find for the plaintiffs on the issue of liability, the jury must award damages for the pecuniary loss to the following people: The plaintiffs spouse, living children, and grandchildren whose parents (Mr. McGowan’s daughters had died by the time of trial. As a result, Central argued that the jury’s original award of $2,055,833 in pecuniary damages (before the court reduced it for contributory negligence and setoff) was erroneously inflated and must be vacated. The court agreed, holding that in this case no evidence was presented to show that Mr. McGowan’s children or grandchildren suffered any pecuniary loss as a result of his death. Because FELA provides for pecuniary damages only, none of Mr. McGowan’s children or grandchildren were entitled to recover. As a result, the trial court’s decision granting the plaintiff’s instruction No. 18 (describing what damages may be considered) was an abuse of discretion because it clearly misled the jury and resulted in prejudice to Central. As a result, the court vacated the jury’s award of $2,055,833 in pecuniary damages and remanded for a new damages hearing to determine the proper amount of pecuniary damages that should be awarded.

Read the full decision here.