Juror collapse, power outage, ringing cell phone disrupt FELA trial

Amelia Flood Aug. 19, 2009, 11:19am


When the power went out briefly at the Madison County Courthouse on Wednesday afternoon, Circuit Judge Dennis Ruth laughed along with jurors and attorneys gathered in his court for a railroader's personal injury trial.

"I don't know what to say," Ruth told the incredulous jurors. "I think the snakes got in the roof."

The power outage came just after Ruth called jurors back in after the collapse of a juror, an older woman who passed out at about 1:15 p.m. during the testimony of plaintiff's expert, Dr. George Schoedinger III.

A fellow juror who identified herself as a nurse and Schoedinger helped the unconscious woman while Ruth quickly left the bench to call for deputies.

The juror was taken by ambulance to a local hospital.

Just after the power outage, one juror's cell phone rang, contributing to an afternoon of disruption.

The remaining jurors had previously assured Ruth that their co-juror's collapse would not hinder their hearing of Phillip Roberts' lawsuit against his former employer, Union Pacific Railroad Company.

Roberts is suing the railroad under the Federal Employee Liability Act for damages of $1 million and costs. Roberts, an Arkansas native, sued Union Pacific over injuries he claims were sustained in a fall along a stretch of track in Wood River.

According to the suit, Roberts injured his back and legs after tripping on an abandoned telephone wire at the Wood River site. He claims the company failed to provide a safe work place, failed to provide a reasonable pathway and failed to clear vegetation among other charges.

Union Pacific alleges that Roberts' lower back injuries are due to a pre-existing condition and that he contributed to his fall.

The co-worker walking in front of Roberts at the time of his accident in 2007 testified by video deposition Tuesday that he warned Roberts about the tripping hazard.

Prior to and just after the juror's collapse, Schoedinger testified about Roberts' injuries. Roberts has had surgery to fuse discs in his lower spine and has undergone physical therapy, according to his doctor, but has been unable to work.

On cross examination, defense attorney Thomas Jones asked the doctor if ruptured or herniated discs in two parts of the back, like Roberts', were common in men after age 35. Schoedinger agreed.

Jones pointed out to Schoedinger's long history of acting as a plaintiff expert in railroad injury cases and asked about how much he charged for his testimony.

"I charge for my time, here in the courthouse, away from my practice," Schoedinger said of his fees he charges for testimony. "You can't buy my testimony."

Testimony in the plaintiff's case continued with economist Dr. Leroy Grossman, formerly of St. Louis University, testifying as to the economic damages Roberts may have suffered.

Grossman told jurors that, based on economic conditions and what Roberts had received as pay and benefits before the accident, his total damages would come out to about $705,720.

The trial will resume Thursday.

The case is Madison case number 07-L-906.

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Union Pacific
1400 Douglas St
Omaha, NE 68179

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