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O'Neal v. Norfolk Southern Railroad Co.

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Macon Division

July 6, 2018

PHILLIP O'NEAL, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Philip O'Neal and Defendant Norfolk Southern Railroad Company have both moved for partial summary judgment. Docs. 15; 17. The motions are DENIED. In addition, O'Neal has moved to strike the opinions of Norfolk Southern's expert witness. Doc. 13. That motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         On January 30, 2016, O'Neal, while employed by Norfolk Southern, attempted to sit in a chair that then fell apart in the computer room of Norfolk Southern's Valdosta, Georgia train depot. Docs. 13-4 at 44:4-5; 17-4 ¶¶ 6-7. It is undisputed that the chair was defective and came apart when O'Neal sat on it, although the parties present conflicting characterizations of that event. Doc. 17-4 ¶¶ 6-7. O'Neal alleges he fell to the ground and that a co-worker, Michael Smith, saw O'Neal's hand fly up in the air as Smith walked into the computer room. Doc. 17-4 ¶¶ 9-19. Norfolk Southern disputes this version of events, claiming that O'Neal did not fall in the way he claims and, accordingly, that Smith witnessed no such thing. Id.

         After the chair fell apart, Smith called Trainmaster Rodrea Booze to report the incident, and, during that phone call, both Smith and O'Neal spoke to Booze. Docs. 17-4 ¶¶ 18-20; 24-1 ¶¶ 11, 13-15. Booze then travelled to Valdosta from Macon, Georgia. Doc. 17-4 ¶ 21. In Valdosta, O'Neal asked Booze to take him to seek medical treatment, which he eventually did. Docs. 17-4 ¶ 24; 24-1 ¶¶ 45-47. Learning that the defective chair had not been inspected since 2009, despite a Norfolk Southern policy that chairs be inspected annually, Booze investigated the other chairs in the depot and found others that were defective. Docs. 15-5 at 18:16-23, 20:4-11, 22:9-12.; 23-1 ¶¶ 27-29.

         When investigating the incident, Booze discovered that, just before he allegedly fell, O'Neal made a phone call to Norfolk Southern's “Operations & Service Support” (OSS) and that call was recorded. Docs. 17 at 3 n.4; 17-4 ¶¶ 29-30. In the recording, the following exchange can be faintly heard between O'Neal and Smith:

O'Neal: Boy, I almost had me -
Smith: You alright?
O'Neal: Yeah. I caught myself but I almost - I almost had me one boy.
Smith: Golly (or God-ly).

Doc. 15-18 at 20. Booze thought this to be inconsistent with O'Neal's claim that he fell. Doc. 15-5 at 81:13-25. Soon after, on February 8, 2016, O'Neal was charged with “making false and/or conflicting statements to a supervisor.” Doc. 15-3. On March 2, 2016, Norfolk Southern conducted an official investigation, or hearing, in which O'Neal was represented by union officials. See generally Doc. 15-8. The hearing officer, Richard Brown, determined that O'Neal was lying. Id. Norfolk Southern then terminated O'Neal's employment on March 16, 2016; O'Neil appealed that decision to the Public Law Board, but that appeal was denied. Docs. 15-3; 17-4.

         O'Neal then filed this complaint, alleging claims under the Federal Railway Safety Act (FRSA), 49 U.S.C. § 20109, and the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. §§ 51-60, and now moves for summary judgment all on issues related to those claims except damages. Doc. 15. Additionally, O'Neal moves to strike expert testimony proffered by Norfolk Southern. Doc. 13. Norfolk Southern has also moved for summary judgment regarding O'Neal's FRSA claim. Doc. 17. On May 11, 2018, the Court held a hearing regarding all these motions. Docs. 30; 33.


         A. Summary Judgment Standard

         Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), a court “‘can only grant summary judgment if everything in the record demonstrates that no genuine issue of material fact exists'” and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Strickland v. Norfolk S. Ry. Co., 692 F.3d 1151, 1154 (11th Cir. 2012) (quoting Tippens v. Celotex Corp., 805 F.2d 940, 952 (11th Cir. 1986)); Gray v. Manklow (In re Optical Techs., Inc.), 246 F.3d 1332, 1334 (11th Cir. 2001). When the movant bears the burden of proof at trial, the movant holds the initial burden to establish there is no genuine dispute concerning whether the elements of the claim or defense have been met. See United States v. Four Parcels of Real Prop., 941 F.2d 1428, 1438 (11th Cir. 1991). In response, the non-movant may defeat summary judgment by producing “significant, probative evidence demonstrating the existence of a triable issue of fact.'” Id. (quoting Chanel, Inc. v. Italian Activewear of Fla., Inc., 931 F.2d 1472, 1477 (11th Cir. 1991)) (alteration in original). In contrast, “[w]hen the nonmoving party has the burden of proof at trial, the moving party is not required to ‘support its motion with affidavits or other similar material negating the opponent's claim.'” Four Parcels of Real Prop., 941 F.2d at 1437 (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Cartrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). The movant “simply may show . . . that there is an absence of evidence to support the [non-movant]'s case.” Id. at 1438 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “Assuming the [movant] has met its burden, the non-movant must then show a genuine dispute regarding any issue for which it will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Info. Sys. & Networks Corp., 281 F.3d at 1224-25 (citing Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324).

         A factual dispute is genuine so as to defeat summary judgment “only if a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Info. Sys. & Networks Corp. v. City of Atlanta, 281 F.3d 1220, 1224 (11th Cir. 2002) (quotation marks omitted). When determining if there is a genuine dispute, “[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). And “credibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge.” Id. When both parties have moved for summary judgment, the standard of review does not change. See Am. Bankers Ins. Grp. v. United States, 408 F.3d 1328, 1331 (11th Cir. 2005). “Cross-motions for summary judgment will not, in themselves, warrant the court in granting summary judgment unless one of the parties is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on facts that are not genuinely disputed.” United States v. Oakley, 744 F.2d 1553, 1555 (11th Cir. 1984) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The Court will consider each motion on its own merits, resolving all reasonable inferences against the party whose motion is under consideration. See Am. Bankers Ins. Grp., 408 F.3d at 1331.

         B. ...

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