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Norfolk Southern Railway Co. v. Lewis

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

March 14, 2018


          MCFADDEN, P. J., BRANCH and BETHEL, JJ.

          Bethel, Judge.

         Norfolk Southern Railway Company appeals from the denial of its motion for a new trial after a jury awarded damages to Roscoe Lewis in his action brought under the Federal Employers' Liability Act ("FELA"). On appeal, Norfolk Southern argues that the trial court erred by granting Lewis's motion in limine to exclude evidence of income that Lewis earned from a car repair business he owned and operated while he was on medical leave from Norfolk Southern. Because we agree with Norfolk Southern that evidence of those earnings and his ability to operate a car repair business were relevant to his claims for lost wages, lost earning capacity, and pain and suffering, we reverse the decision of the trial court denying Norfolk Southern's motion for a new trial.

         The record before us reflects that, while employed at Norfolk Southern, Lewis injured his back in a work-related accident and did not work for a period of time thereafter. He later brought suit against Norfolk Southern under FELA, claiming damages for the injuries he sustained in the accident. Included in his prayer for relief were claims for "sustained mental and physical . . . pain and suffering, past, present, and future . . . lost wages in the past and future . . . [and] permanent loss of earning capacity."

         During the pendency of the suit, Norfolk Southern became aware that, both prior to and after the accident that injured him, Lewis ran a side business in which he repaired cars. Norfolk Southern claimed that a review of Lewis's bank transactions reflected earnings from this business during the period of his leave from Norfolk Southern. Lewis moved in limine to exclude evidence of this side business and the earnings he received from it, arguing that such earnings were irrelevant to his claims. The trial court granted that motion over Norfolk Southern's objection. Specifically, the trial court prohibited any questions or arguments from either party regarding the income received by Lewis from performing car repairs but did permit the parties to discuss and offer evidence regarding Lewis's physical ability to work on cars, specifically as it related to his claim for damages for pain and suffering.

         The jury returned a verdict in favor of Lewis and awarded him $84, 292.75 in past lost wages and $494, 000 for pain and suffering. Norfolk Southern filed a motion for a new trial, alleging the same grounds it now raises on appeal. The trial court denied that motion, and this appeal followed.

         FELA "provides a federal tort remedy for railroad employees injured on the job, [while] working within the scope of their employment." Zeagler v. Norfolk So. R. Co., 317 Ga.App. 302, 303 (730 S.E.2d 657) (2012) (footnote omitted); 45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq. A FELA plaintiff can recover special damages for past and future lost wages and medical expenses and general damages for pain and suffering. Central of Ga. R. Co. v. Swindle, 260 Ga. 685, 686 (398 S.E.2d 365) (1990).

         State and federal courts have concurrent jurisdiction over FELA cases, [1] and while the substantive remedies offered by FELA are federal, "FELA cases adjudicated in state courts are subject to state procedural rules[.]" CSX Transp., Inc. v. Howell, 296 Ga.App. 583, 586 (1) (675 S.E.2d 306) (2009). Under Georgia law, "[w]e review the trial court's decision to admit or exclude evidence under the abuse of discretion standard." C&F Servs., Inc. v. First So. Bank, 258 Ga.App. 71, 75 (1) (573 S.E.2d 102) (2002); see also Smith v. CSX Transp., Inc., 325 Ga.App. 314, 320 (751 S.E.2d 604) (2013) (abuse of discretion standard applied to determine whether trial court erred in admitting certain evidence relevant to plaintiff's lost wages and earning capacity in FELA case) (physical precedent only).

         The trial court permitted Norfolk Southern to introduce evidence that Lewis could work on cars, but only in relation to his claim for pain and suffering. It barred Norfolk Southern from introducing evidence regarding, or referring to, income he earned from the business. The trial court's initial exclusion of this evidence appears to have been based on its determination that such evidence was not relevant to any issue in this case. In its order denying Norfolk Southern's motion for a new trial, the trial court also indicated its view that evidence of Lewis's earnings from his car repair business would have been confusing to the jury and that the risk of such confusion was substantially greater than the probative value of the evidence. For the reasons set forth below, it was an abuse of the trial court's discretion to exclude this evidence on those grounds.

         OCGA § 24-4-401 provides that relevant evidence is any evidence that has "any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence." OCGA § 24-4-403 provides that "[r]elevant evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence." In this case, Lewis's claims for damages were for lost wages, diminished future earning capacity, and past and future pain and suffering.

         (a) Lost Wages.

Under FELA, the appropriate measure of lost wages for a FELA plaintiff is the difference between what the plaintiff would have earned on the railroad and what he might have earned in another position. Jones v. Consol. Rail Corp., 800 F.2d 590, 594 (6th Cir. 1986); Central of Ga. Railroad Co. v. Ross, 342 Ga.App. 27, 33 (2) (a) (802 S.E.2d 336) (2017). We note that Jones dealt specifically with jury instructions on the allowable measure of damages, not whether certain evidence was relevant to those considerations. However, because the jury in Jones was not properly informed that the measure of damages for lost wages was the difference between the plaintiff's former employment and any interim employment, reversible error occurred. Jones, 800 F.2d at 594.

         In light of the principles discussed in Jones, we agree with Norfolk Southern that Lewis's earnings from his car repair business during the period of his leave from Norfolk Southern are relevant to his claim for lost wages. In this case, Norfolk Southern came forward with evidence before trial that Lewis earned fees for his car repair work during the period he was not working for Norfolk Southern. Although the record reflects that Lewis had apparently done this type of work for pay as a side job while he was also working for Norfolk Southern and that some of the money he received was essentially in the form of a "donation" from friends and family members, he indicated in his deposition that the amounts he received from repairs increased during the period of his leave from Norfolk Southern.[2]

         It is plainly arguable, then, as Norfolk Southern has asserted, that additional earnings from his car repair business offset, or could have offset, some of the income he lost during his period of leave from Norfolk Southern. This evidence could be used to contest the extent and value of damages suffered by Lewis. For these reasons, we hold that the trial court abused its discretion by excluding evidence ...

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