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Amatucci v. Delaware and Hudson Railway Co.

September 28, 1984

AMILIO AMATUCCI, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
DELAWARE AND HUDSON RAILWAY COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



Appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Foley, Judge), a jury having awarded appellee $137,500 in his action under the Federal Employers' Liability Act. Reversed and remanded.

Author: Pierce

Before: KAUFMAN, MESKILL, and PIERCE, Circuit Judges.

PIERCE, Circuit Judge:

The Delaware and Hudson Railway Company ("D & H" or "railroad") appeals from a judgment entered February 6, 1984, on a verdict for the plaintiff following a jury trial in the District Court for the Northern District of New York, James T. Foley, Judge. The jury awarded appellee Amatucci $137,500 under the provisions of the Federal Employers' Liability Act ("FELA"), 45 U.S.C. ยงยง 51-60. Without reaching the merits of Amatucci's FELA claim, we find that the district court erred by admitting into evidence testimony that was prejudicial to the railroad and affected its substantial rights. See Fed. R. Evid. 103(a). We reverse the judgment of the district court and remand the cause for a new trial.

I. BACKGROUND

Amatucci sued his employer, the railroad, claiming it negligently failed to provide him with a safe place to work and continued to assign him to a job that was adversely affecting his health. He maintains that this negligence caused him to sustain a heart condition that ultimately rendered him unable to work for the D & H.

Amatucci's employment with the D & H began in 1964. In 1971, he qualified as an engineer for the railroad, but worked chiefly as a fireman. After 1976, Amatucci alleges, he was given work only as an "extra-board engineer." As such, he was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There was testimony at trial that the conditions of employment were highly stressful; that engineers were required to operate engines that lacked functioning safety mechanisms over badly deteriorated track in mountainous terrain while carrying a variety of cargo, including toxic, explosive, and radioactive materials. The railroad allegedly was aware of these conditions but did not rectify them. Futher, evidence was presented to show that the railroad sometimes required extra-board engineers to operate engines for 12 hours, sleep for four to six hours, and again operate engines for 12 hours. There was testimony that, despite such conditions, the engineers considered themselves responsible for the safety of the train crew and for the well-being of the inhabitants of the towns and villages through which the train passed.

In March of 1978, Amatucci developed a stomach condition, for which the railroad doctor prescribed antacids and rest. In July of that year, he suffered a breakdown that caused him to cry uncontrollably, whereupon the railroad's doctor instructed the D & H trainmaster to allow Amatucci to refuse extra-board assignments when he was too fatigued to work. After a few months, however, Amatucci was notified that he would no longer be permitted to "mark off" because of fatigue. When Amatucci refused a work assignment becau s e of fatigue, he was suspended without pay. He thereafter returned to work, on essentially the same schedule he had before his breakdown.

In April 1980, Amatucci experienced severe chest pain, later diagnosed as angina pectoris. The railroad thereupon relieved him of extra-board engineer duties and reassigned him to yard duty. The railroad's doctor testified that job-related stress was the basis for this decision. After October 26, 1982, apparently there was no longer any work available for which Amatucci was qualified. Amatucci brought this action against the D & H on December 1, 1982.

At trial, Amatucci's counsel elicited testimony from a witness, Fink, that he had suffered a heart attack while operating an engine as an extra-board engineer for the D & H. There was no objection to this testimony. Immediately thereafter, Amatucci's counsel inquired whether Fink was familiar with "any other engineers that had a heart attack while driving a locomotive engine." Counsel for the railroad objected to this as irrelevant. Although the court suggested that the objection would be sustained, the district judge, for reasons that are not entirely clear from the record, proceeded to pursue this line of questioning himself, all within the hearing of the jury. This dialogue was as follows:

Q Mr. Fink, you had a heart attack while you were driving a locomotive engine, is that correct?

A That is correct.

Q And while you were on the Delaware and Hudson Railroad did you become familiar with any other engineers that had a heart attack while ...


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