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Keranen v. National Railroad Passenger Corp.

January 06, 2000


Before Wagner, Chief Judge and Steadman and Reid, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reid, Associate Judge

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (Hon. Evelyn E. C. Queen, Trial Judge)

Argued January 28, 1999

Appellant Joseph A. Keranen filed a complaint under the Federal Employers' Liability Act ("FELA"), 45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq. against the National Railroad Passenger Corporation ("Amtrak") on September 27, 1995, after being injured in a fire while working on board a train bound from Montreal to the District of Columbia. The trial court granted directed verdicts in favor of Amtrak.

Mr. Keranen contends on appeal that the trial court erred in: (1) granting a directed verdict motion in favor of Amtrak on his "failure to train or instruct" claim after his opening statement; (2) granting Amtrak's motions for directed verdicts with respect to his claim of failure to provide a safe workplace due to: (a) an alleged "too heavily sprung" ladies' lounge door and Amtrak's failure to inspect and repair the door; (b) the lack of smoke detectors on each train car; and (c) an electrical fire; and (3) making certain evidentiary rulings, including: (a) refusing to admit evidence pertaining to the existence of smoke detectors on some Amtrak cars and the lack of them on others, as well as evidence regarding a petition by Amtrak employees to require smoke detectors on cars; (b) refusing to admit into evidence two documents, Amtrak's letter of commendation for his role in ensuring the safety of passengers during the fire, and a record of "defect history" for the train car in which the fire occurred; (c) excluding portions of a non-expert witness's testimony regarding the origin of the fire; and (d) permitting Amtrak's counsel to inquire into Mr. Keranen's background to elicit testimony concerning his prior history of alcohol use and his psychological treatment. We affirm the trial court's directed verdict as to Mr. Keranen's training claim; and affirm its directed verdicts with respect to his safe workplace cause of action relating to the lack of smoke detectors and an alleged electrical fire, but reverse as to his claim of a "too tightly sprung" door to the ladies' lounge and Amtrak's alleged failure to inspect and repair the door and remand for a new trial on that claim.


On September 27, 1995, Mr. Keranen filed a personal injury action against his employer, Amtrak. In his complaint he alleged that on March 1, 1993, "at or near Waterbury, Vermont, [he] was injured as a result of an on-board fire in the ladies' lounge on [Amtrak's] passenger car." Paragraph 6 of his complaint declared that in violation of the FELA, Amtrak:

failed to provide [him] with a safe place to work and safe equipment with which to work in that the car was defective and caught fire; that defendant failed to inspect, find, repair and warn [Mr. Keranen] of his dangerous condition; that [Amtrak] and its agents failed to issue and arrange for appropriate warnings and training prior to [Mr. Keranen's] accident; and that as a result of this negligence and carelessness on the part of the defendant and its agents, [Mr. Keranen] suffer[ed] severe and permanent injuries.

Keranen sought damages for loss of income, physical pain and mental anguish.

Trial began on July 7, 1997. Mr. Keranen testified that he began work at Amtrak in January 1993 as a train and service attendant. On March 1, 1993, he was assigned to car 4726 as a train attendant on the Montrealer for a round trip journey between the District of Columbia and Montreal, Canada. Prior to departing the District, Mr. Keranen inspected car 4726. In a document called the Map 21 or the Map Book, in which problems were recorded during inspection, Mr. Keranen "noted that the door was extremely heavily-sprung in the ladies lounge." He noticed that "[t]he door had been previously . . . written up." When he re-inspected car 4726, prior to the return trip from Montreal, he observed that the ladies' lounge door had not been repaired. The Map 21 document was not introduced at trial because it could not be found.

As the train proceeded toward Waterbury, Vermont, Mr. Keranen observed "a film of smoke" in car 4726. The smoke came from "the top of the ladies' lounge door." He felt the door but "it was not burning hot." Using both hands, he "couch[ed] down and . . . opened the door" a few inches. He pushed a little more with "[his] left hand on the door and [his] right hand on the door jamb. . . ." "The floor was . . . glowing red." The smoke "was building up real fast." Mr. Keranen "let go of the door and . . . turned and when [he did], [his] right knee hit very hard the door jamb." He "was twisting at the time [he] fell backwards and . . . had released the door." Mr. Keranen maintained that the door "was springed too close and closed real tight. It was constantly pressing against [him]." *fn1 He alerted another train attendant, Cheryl Tyler, about the fire. As Mr. Keranen and Ms. Tyler evacuated passengers, Mr. Keranen hit his knee against a chair.

When the train pulled into Waterbury, Vermont, local firefighters arrived and extinguished the fire. Mr. Keranen watched the firefighters cut the floor of the ladies' lounge. He saw "[a] lot of scorched or burned up particle board and . . . burnt wires . . . . The pipes had quite a bit of burning on them also." *fn2

Although his knee was causing him pain, Mr. Keranen did not report his injury immediately but eventually informed another member of the crew. He did not attempt to obtain medical assistance in Waterbury. Upon his arrival in the District, however, he sought medical help at the hospital. Two months later when he still experienced problems with his knee and had "tremendous difficulty walking, bending, [and] lifting," Mr. Keranen again sought medical attention. He was given anti-inflammatory medication and physical therapy. Ultimately, he had surgery on his knee, but the pain continued. Following more physical therapy, he returned to work in January 1994. He stopped work in August 1994, however, because of his inability to stand without severe pain. He then underwent a second surgery. The pain persisted.

Ms. Tyler testified that she used the ladies' lounge about ten to fifteen minutes before the fire was discovered. The lounge was very hot but Ms. Tyler did not see any smoke. She stated that the door to the ladies' lounge was difficult to open. After Mr. Keranen told her about the fire, she accompanied him to the ladies' lounge, "opened the door, and at that time, there were flames coming through the floor." Ms. Tyler and Mr. Keranen proceeded to evacuate the passengers. Later, Ms. Tyler noticed that the firefighters were working outside and underneath the car in which the ladies' lounge was located. She observed electrical wires underneath the car. She was unaware of any problem with Mr. Keranen's leg until they were taken to a hospital after the train arrived in the District. On cross-examination, she acknowledged that she "did not perceive of any unsafe conditions [on the train] that required [her]" to make a written record.

Robert Wiggins, who began his employment with Amtrak at the same time as Mr. Keranen, worked as a train attendant, service attendant, food specialist and chef during his tenure with Amtrak. He stated that he and Mr. Keranen received two weeks of training that included fire safety training during one afternoon. They "saw a video . . . that . . . talked about . . . basic fire - how to handle the fire basically." Each member of the class also "got [one] spray of the fire extinguisher."

Vicky Eby, Mr. Keranen's sister, worked for a time as head of the Safety Department for Amtrak Auto Train. She described her brother's swollen and worsening knee condition, his inability to participate in sports as he did before March 1, 1993, and his difficulty climbing stairs. She also discussed the type of inspections Amtrak performed on its trains. Interior and undercarriage inspections took place before departure to and from the train's destination and any problems detected were recorded in the Map 21 Book. She "believed" that she saw the Map 21 document which was on car 4726 on March 1, 1993, but could not recall the name of the person who filled out the information for that day. *fn3 Furthermore, because no "expert testif[ied] that a prudent carrier has smoke detectors," Ms. Eby was not permitted to present testimony concerning her complaints about smoke detectors and her petition "to have smoke detectors put on the [Amtrak train] cars."

The trial court permitted certain portions of the videotape deposition testimony of Edward J. Eldredge, *fn4 who was the Fire Chief of Waterbury, Vermont at the time of the fire, to be presented to the jury. Mr. Eldredge was not qualified as an expert in the causes of fires. As his regular occupation, he pre-stained wood siding. He also served as the zoning administrator for Waterbury, Vermont. In his testimony, he asserted that he and his workers opened up part of the floor in the ladies' lounge, observed glowing and charred particle and hardboard, and used water to extinguish the glow. He saw an electrically operated heater and "the wires leading to it had been - the insulation had been burned off." On cross-examination, he acknowledged that he did not consider himself to be "an expert on fire origin" and had "received [no] specific training on fire origin."

For the defense, Amtrak presented the testimony of Dr. James Brian Wade, a clinical psychologist, Dr. Wayne Lindsey, an orthopedic surgeon, and Dr. Charles Harry Epps, Jr., also an orthopedic surgeon. Dr. Wade summarized Mr. Keranen's alleged alcohol abuse problem, sexual disorder, and bipolar disorder or manic depressive illness. He also stated that Mr. Keranen had "mild pain sensation" but "severe cognitive suffering." Dr. Lindsey diagnosed Mr. Keranen's problem as "a plica" or "some thickening tissue in his knee that was causing him the pain that he was describing." He performed surgery on Mr. Keranen's knee in October 1993. On December 9, 1993, Dr. Lindsey expressed the view that Mr. Keranen's "soreness at this time appears to be disproportionate to any significant physical findings." He thought Mr. Keranen "should resume full work activity" with Amtrak. After examining Mr. Keranen again in January 1994, he saw no significant problems. Dr. Epps examined Mr. Keranen in July 1996. He opined that Mr. Keranen had a six percent permanent impairment of the right knee function which left him "substantially a great deal of function in the knee." *fn5 Moreover, he determined that Mr. Keranen was able to perform the functions of a train attendant.

During trial, the judge made several pertinent rulings. After Mr. Keranen's opening statement, the trial court directed a verdict as to the "failure to train or instruct" claim because Mr. Keranen had ...

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