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TAYLOR v. AMTRAK

November 4, 1994

ALICIA TAYLOR, Plaintiff, against NATIONAL RAILROAD PASSENGER CORPORATION, individually and d/b/a AMTRAK, Defendant.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOHN R. BARTELS

 Defendant National Railroad Passenger Corporation ("Amtrak") moves this Court under Rules 50(b) and 59(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for an order setting aside the jury verdict and entering judgment in its favor, or alternatively granting defendant a new trial. Defendant urges that extraneous juror communication and adverse publicity tainted the results of the trial, and that the jury awarded excessive damages. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that although no outside influence compromised the verdict, the damages awarded by the jury were excessive. The Court therefore grants defendant's motion for a new trial unless plaintiff elects to file remittitur of damages in excess of $ 283,585.15, the maximum damage award the Court finds supported by the record.

 BACKGROUND

 Plaintiff, a seventy-five-year-old woman, was injured on October 27, 1991, when she arrived at Pennsylvania Station in New York City on defendant's train bound from Niagara Falls. Escalator #15, which is located in the center of Amtrak's main waiting room and ascends from the lower level of the station to the waiting room, is within those portions of Pennsylvania Station owned, operated, and maintained by Amtrak. Plaintiff was riding Escalator #15 when she fell backwards, landing prone with her feet towards the top of the escalator. There was conflicting testimony as to whether plaintiff's head actually struck the escalator stairs or hit the side of the escalator. Harold Thompson, a red cap employed by Amtrak, had been assisting plaintiff with her luggage and was standing directly behind her at the time she fell. Mr. Thompson testified that he caught plaintiff, successfully preventing her head from striking the stairs. The testimony did show, however, that plaintiff's head and a portion of her body came into contact with the right side of the escalator.

 At trial it was undisputed that at the time of the accident the moving handrail on the right side of the escalator, which plaintiff testified she had been holding, stopped abruptly. Plaintiff stated that the mobile stairs continued to ascend after the handrail failed, creating an effect whereby she felt as though she were being dragged backwards down the stairs by the handrail. Plaintiff claimed, and defendant conceded, that Escalator #15 malfunctioned as a result of defendant's negligence, and that this negligence was a cause of the accident. Defendant urged unsuccessfully at trial, however, that plaintiff's own negligence contributed to her injuries, in that plaintiff would not have been injured or would have sustained a less serious injury if she simply had released the right-hand handrail and continued up on the escalator stairs.

 The case was tried before this Court and heard by a jury on August 2, 3, and 4 of this year. After finding no contributory negligence, the jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff in the amount of $ 383,585.15. The jury awarded plaintiff $ 105,000 for pain and suffering from the date of the accident to the date of the verdict; $ 3,585.15 for medical expenses incurred by plaintiff; and $ 275,000 in damages to compensate plaintiff for future pain and suffering. The jury specified that the award for future pain and suffering was meant to compensate plaintiff for a remaining life expectancy of twelve years.

 DISCUSSION

 A. Defendant has Failed to Show its Entitlement to Judgment as a Matter of Law Under Rule 50(b)

 Where, as here, a party moves jointly under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 50(b) and 59(a), the court must rule separately on each motion. 5A Moore's Federal Practice, P 50.13[1], p. 50-112 (Second Edition). Rule 50(b) permits a party to renew post-verdict a motion for judgment as a matter of law made and denied at the close of all the evidence. The initial motion, brought before submission of the case to the jury, is a prerequisite to any motion brought after trial. Id. at P 50.09, p. 50-96. Here, defendant's failure to move for judgment at the close of evidence bars it from bringing the present Rule 50 motion. Assuming this remedy had been preserved adequately, Amtrak has failed to demonstrate its entitlement to judgment as a matter of law.

 The courts within this Circuit employ an "appropriately strict" standard when deciding a Rule 50(b) motion. Stubbs v. Dudley, 849 F.2d 83, 85 (2d Cir. 1988). The district court may grant the motion only upon a showing that "(1) there is such a complete absence of evidence supporting the verdict that the jury's findings could only have been the result of sheer surmise and conjecture, or (2) there is such an overwhelming amount of evidence in favor of the movant that reasonable and fair minded [jurors] could not arrive at a verdict against him." Mattivi v. South African Marine Corp. "Huguenot", 618 F.2d 163, 168 (2d Cir. 1980). See also Samuels v. Air Transport Local 504, 992 F.2d 12, 14 (2d Cir. 1993). In deciding a Rule 50 motion, the court is constrained to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and must draw all reasonable inferences in its favor. Weldy v. Piedmont Airlines, Inc., 985 F.2d 57, 60 (2d Cir. 1993). The court cannot "assess the weight of conflicting evidence, pass on the credibility of the witnesses, or substitute its judgment for that of the jury." Mattivi, 618 F.2d at 167. If the court finds that it should set aside the verdict for insufficiency of evidence, Rule 50(b) accords the trial judge the option of entering judgment as a matter of law or ordering a new trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b).

 Drawing all inferences in plaintiff's favor, it is clear that the verdict here is not against the weight of the evidence. Amtrak admitted at trial that it had acted negligently, and conceded that its negligence played at least some part in bringing about plaintiff's injuries. Thus, on the question of liability, the sole issue before the jury was plaintiff's alleged contributory negligence. Plaintiff testified that when the right-hand rail stopped moving, she responded by grabbing that rail, which she already had been holding, more tightly. Defendant urged that this reaction was unreasonable, and that plaintiff should have taken some affirmative action to prevent her fall, for instance releasing the malfunctioning handrail or taking hold of the rail on the left-hand side of the escalator. Amtrak argued that had plaintiff done so, she simply would have continued up the escalator, successfully averting any injury.

 Defendant's proof also falls short of establishing a complete absence of evidence supporting the jury's damage award. Although the jury awarded plaintiff a very generous sum, it cannot be said that plaintiff's case was so bereft of proof supporting her injuries that the Court is justified in entering judgment as a matter of law in favor of defendant. The parties agree that plaintiff fell while riding upon Escalator #15. Plaintiff testified that as a result of the fall she experiences constant pain in her right side and leg, numbness in her right hand, and has great difficulty walking. She stated that she no longer has the ability to perform daily tasks such as shopping and laundry, and has lost the independence she enjoyed before the accident. Plaintiff described a variety of injuries for which she has received continuing medical treatment, and stated that she had seen her treating physician as recently as one week before trial.

 Plaintiff's expert, Dr. Paul Post, testified that a standard magnetic resonance imaging examination (an "MRI") revealed three disc herniations, one disc bulge, and a straightening of plaintiff's normal spinal curve. He testified that during his examination of plaintiff he noted areas of decreased sensation on plaintiff's right hand, tightness in the musculature surrounding plaintiff's neck, a weakening of plaintiff's ability to grasp with her right hand, and an inability to fully extend and raise her arms. Although defendant's expert testified, and on cross examination plaintiff's expert agreed, that plaintiff suffered from degenerative arthritis, the jury reasonably and ...


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