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August 2014

Jury Properly Instructed “Assumption of the Risk” is No Defense, When Employer Injects Such Evidence and Argument Into Case

Union Pacific R. Co. v. Estate of Gutierrez, 2014 WL 4109586 (Tex.App. — Houston [1st Dist.] August 21, 2014), is a Federal Employers Liability Act (or “FELA”) case.  But, the Jones Act, applicable to a seaman’s negligence action against his employer for personal injury or death, expressly incorporates the FELA by reference, so court decisions under the FELA are highly persuasive in Jones Act cases, and vice versa.

UPIn this case, although the Court found Congress had amended the FELA in 1939 to abolish the assumption of the risk defense in actions brought under this statute, the Court agreed with plaintiff’s counsel that the railroad’s lawyer had repeatedly placed before the jury argument and evidence implying the deceased rail worker had a choice in many aspects of his job, and essentially that the worker could have through his choices avoided his own accident.  Under these circumstances, the appeals court agreed with the trial judge that it was necessary to instruct the jury before it retired to reach its verdict that the assumption of the risk defense was not available to the railroad defendant, in order to ensure the jury had a proper understanding of applicable law.

The appeals court summarized the deceased worker’s estate’s position on appeal as follows:

“Appellees, however, argue that appellant injected the issue of assumption of the risk by repeatedly telling the jury that Gutierrez had chosen to work the job on which he was injured, in the location where he was injured, and under the conditions existing at the time, despite there being no requirement for him to do so because his seniority allowed him to choose a different job. In support of their position, appellees point to several exchanges in voir dire during which appellant’s counsel asked venire members how they responded to unsafe working conditions in their job, suggesting that stopping work in such conditions was ‘good sense’ and assuming ‘personal responsibility.’ In opening statements, appellant’s counsel referred several times to Gutierrez’s seniority, that it allowed him to bid on any job he wanted, and that he picked the RIP track because that was his preferred location. Appellees also point to co-workers’ testimony elicited by [the railroad] that Gutierrez chose to work the job on which he was injured, despite seniority that allowed him to choose any position. Appellees argue that given these examples, and the fact that appellant claimed that Gutierrez had been contributorily negligent in causing his injury, an instruction that assumption of the risk is not a defense was warranted.”

The appeals court, in agreeing that the curative instruction to the jury on the non-applicability of the assumption of the risk defense was warranted, wrote:

“[A] trial court may instruct a jury that assumption of the risk is not a defense if there are ‘facts strongly suggesting assumption of the risk…..Here, appellant’s counsel reminded the jury numerous times—in voir dire, in opening statements, and through witness testimony—of the fact that Gutierrez’s seniority allowed him to choose any job he wanted but that he had chosen the job and location where he worked….Further, we note that a defendant’s intentions in presenting such evidence is not the proper focus; rather, it is the potential impact on the jury that governs whether an instruction is given….”


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