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Wooten v. Bnsf Railway Co.

United States District Court, D. Montana, Missoula Division

October 17, 2017

ZACHARY WOOTEN, Plaintiff,
v.
BNSF RAILWAY COMPANY, a Delaware corporation, Defendant.

          ORDER

          JEREMIAH C. LYNCH UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant BNSF Railway Company (“BNSF”)'s motion to bifurcate pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42(b). For the reasons set forth below, BNSF's motion is denied.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff Zachary Wooten alleges he suffered an on-the-job injury on July 31, 2015 while working as a crew member on a BNSF locomotive. Wooten claims he injured his wrist while exiting the locomotive to perform a roll-by inspection because a latch on the door failed to open properly. Wooten alleges that his injured wrist gave way when he tried to climb back onto the locomotive, causing him to fall and injure his wrist more severely. According to Wooten, he promptly notified BNSF of his injury and reported a hazardous safety condition with respect to the locomotive latch.

         In the weeks that followed, BNSF conducted an investigation for the purpose of determining whether Wooten had been dishonest in his injury report. As a result of its investigation, BNSF determined that Wooten had been dishonest in reporting his injury and terminated his employment on September 29, 2015.

         Wooten commenced this action against BNSF in October 2016. He alleges he was injured as a result of BNSF's negligence, and brings a personal injury claim under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (“FELA”), 45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq. and Locomotive Inspection Act, 49 U.S.C. § 20701 (“LIA”). Wooten also alleges that BNSF retaliated against him for reporting his injury and a hazardous safety condition, and a brings a retaliation claim under the Federal Railroad Safety Act (“FRSA”), 49 U.S.C. § 20109. He seeks compensatory and other damages, including an award of punitive damages on his FRSA claim.

         BNSF has moved to bifurcate the trial of Wooten's FELA and LIA claim (hereinafter “FELA claim”) from his FRSA claim, and requests a second phase for the determination of punitive damages on the FRSA claim if necessary.

         II. Legal Standards

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42(b) provides that “[f]or convenience, to avoid prejudice, or to expedite and economize, the court may order a separate trial of one or more separate issues, claims, cross-claims, counterclaims, or third-party claims.” Whether to bifurcate proceedings for any of the reasons listed in Rule 42(b) is within the broad discretion of the trial court. M2 Software, Inc. v. Madacy Entertainment, 421 F.3d 1073, 1088 (9th Cir. 2005); Hangarter v. Provident Life and Acc. Ins. Co., 373 F.3d 998, 1021 (9th Cir. 2004). “The burden is on the moving party to show bifurcation is warranted.” Burton v. Mountain West Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co., 214 F.R.D. 598, 612 (D. Mont. 2003).

         In determining whether bifurcation is appropriate, the Court considers such “factors as convenience, prejudice, judicial economy, and whether the issues are clearly separable...” Bowoto v. Chevron Corp., 2008 WL 2074401 (N.D. Cal. 2008) (citing Schwartz, Tashima & Wagstaffe, Federal Civil Procedure Before Trial 16:160.4 (1999); Hirst v. Gertzen, 676 F.2d 1252, 1261 (9th Cir. 1982)); M2 Software, Inc., 421 F.3d at 1088. Of these factors, avoiding prejudice is the most important. See Martin v. Bell Helicopter Co., 85 F.R.D. 654, 658 (D. Colo. 1980); LaitramCorp. v. Hewlett-Packard Co., 791 F.Supp. 113, 114 (E.D. La. 1992).

         III. Discussion

         BNSF argues these factors weigh in favor of bifurcating the trial of Wooten's FELA and FRSA claims. First, BNSF takes the position that bifurcation is necessary to prevent it from suffering undue prejudice. Generally speaking, Wooten's FELA claim requires proof that he was injured as a result of BNSF's alleged negligence, while his FRSA claim requires proof that BNSF retaliated against him for reporting his injury and an allegedly hazardous safety condition. BSNF argues that evidence of its alleged retaliatory conduct is not relevant to the question of whether it acted negligently, and fears it will be prejudiced if evidence of its alleged FRSA violation is allowed during the trial of Wooten's FELA claim. BNSF maintains the only effective way to guarantee that it receives a fair and impartial trial is to try Wooten's FELA and FRSA claims separately.

         Contrary to BNSF's argument, the Court finds that any possibility of prejudice can be reduced or eliminated by the use of limiting instructions to the jury, explaining how and for what purposes certain evidence may be considered. See Frost v. Burton, 218 F.Supp.3d 1122, 1131 (D. Mont. 2016) (denying motion to bifurcate trial of FELA claim into two phases for liability and punitive damages, and finding that any prejudice could be avoided by the use of a limiting instruction); Burton v. Mountain West Farm Bureau Mut. Ins., 214 F.R.D. 598, 613 (D. Mont. 2003). Appropriate limiting instructions will adequately ensure that the jury understands that a finding of liability under FELA does not mean that BNSF is also liable under FRSA. See Powell v. Union Pacific R. Co., 2013 WL 497636 *4 (E.D. Cal. Feb. 7, 2013) (limiting instructions sufficient to ensure the jury understands that a finding of liability under FELA does not necessitate a finding in plaintiff's favor on his wrongful termination claim).

         Second, BSNF argues that bifurcation is appropriate because Wooten's FELA and FRSA claims involve distinct elements, defenses, burdens of proof, and remedies. BNSF takes the position that the legal and factual distinctions between the two claims make separate trials the logical way to present those claims to the jury. For support, BNSF relies on Lodgson v. BNSF Railway Company, 2017 WL 1411464 *2 (D. Neb. March 21, 2017), in which the court ...


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