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Lavender v. Kurn

    Brief Fact Summary. Petitioner, administrator of the estate of L.E. Haney, a railroad employee, sued Respondents, two railroad companies, under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”) for Haney’s death, which occurred while he was working. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Petitioner. The Respondents appealed and the Supreme Court of Missouri reversed the jury’s verdict, holding that there was not substantial evidence of negligence to support a verdict for Petitioner. Petitioner filed a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of the United States.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A jury’s finding of fact cannot be overturned unless there are no probative facts on the record to support such finding or it is otherwise so unreasonable as to be taken away from the jury.

    Facts. Lavender, Petitioner and the administrator of the estate of L.E. Haney, a former railroad employee, sued Respondent Kurn, trustees of the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway Company (Frisco), and Respondent Illinois Central Railroad Company (Illinois Central), the former employer of Haney under FELA. The evidence presented in the case below showed that Haney, a former switchman for Illinois Central had been working on a dark night in Memphis. Haney was in charge of clearing the switch for Frisco’s train that was backing into the Memphis station. Haney switched the tracks for the train to back up, which it did. Haney was supposed to switch the light from red to green once the train cleared the switch; when the light did not turn green railroad employees went back to where Haney was and found him dead. He suffered from an injury to the back of the head.
    The evidence presented showed that Haney had fallen forward. The actual cause of his death was disputed. Petitioner argued that he was hit by a mail hook protruding from one of the cars on the backing train that could pivot out of the side of the train as much as 12-14 inches. There were mounds of dirt and cinder of varying heights along the tracks. Petitioner’s theory was that while Haney was standing on the mound and the overhanging section of the car passed by, the mail hook was sticking out and hit Haney inside the back of the head. Respondents’ theory was that Haney was murdered by an unknown assailant. The Supreme Court of Missouri held that it would be too speculative and conjectural to infer that the mail hook extended 12-14 inches out of the train. In addition, the Supreme Court of Missouri held that there was not enough evidence presented by Petitioner to show that insufficient light and uneven ground could have contributed to Haney’s death. Finally, a foreman’s testimony
    that he heard an unidentified switchman relay that the switchman was told that Haney died from something sticking out of the train was inadmissible hearsay. Based on these grounds, the Supreme Court of Missouri reversed the verdict for Petition. Petitioner filed a petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of the United States.

    Issue. Does the evidence presented at trial, when viewed in the light most favorable to Petitioner, support an inference that the decedent could have been hit by an object sticking out of Respondent’s train?

    Held. Yes. Reversed and remanded.
    A jury’s verdict must only be overturned if there are no probative facts to support inferences necessary for the jury to find in favor of the prevailing party or the verdict is so unreasonable that the case should not have been submitted to the jury in the first place.

    There is a reasonable basis to infer that the mail hook hit Haney in the back of the head. There was testimony presented that the mail hook could have extended 12-14 inches from the train, that Haney could have been beside the train standing on a mound, and that the hook would have hit him when the train passed by.

    When there are disputed facts so that different reasonable inferences can be made from the same evidence presented, then the reasonable inference that the jury chooses cannot be reversed merely because there may be some speculation and conjecture involved. Therefore, Respondents evidence that Haney was murdered does not mandate that the jury credit it over the evidence presented by Haney’s estate.

    In addition, the jury could reasonably find that Illinois Central was responsible for the dark working conditions and that these conditions contributed to Haney’s death.

    Dissent. Justice Reed dissents.

    Discussion. A jury’s verdict cannot be reversed merely because the court finds another inference that it deems more reasonable or because there is evidence supporting the losing party’s theories of the case. If there are facts on the record that can support a reasonable inference in favor of the prevailing party, the jury’s verdict will not be overturned.


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