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Third Circuit Affirms Port Authority Worker's $3.75 Million Eye Injury


The Third Circuit upheld a trackman worker’s $3.75 million jury verdict against the Port Authority for an eye injury from an unidentified object that struck plaintiff James Meals while on the job in February 2011. Meals, who worked for the New Jersey Trans-Hudson Corp. railway tunnel, was using a claw bar and half washer to pull pin spikes, a technique created by the railroad, at the time of his injury.

About three hours into the shift, Meals and his partner encountered a spike that proved to be very difficult. His attorney, Marc Wietzke, says Meals and his partner did what they had been trained to do, “muscle it out.” Instead, the heat-treated washer popped through the corroded spike head right away, and the washer then sliced Meals right eye open “from 12 o’clock to 3’clock,” according to Wietzke.

Since then, Meals has:

  • Faced the possibilities of glaucoma and complete blindness.
  • Undergone five surgeries, including the suturing of his right iris.
  • Lost 29 weeks of work.
  • Lost a net total of $27,000 in wages.
  • Lost total vision in his right eye.
  • Lost ability to practice competitive mixed martial arts, a longtime hobby and money-earning side job.

Hydraulic spike puller

Since his injury, Meals has also learned that the manual technique he was forced to utilize by the Port Authority is completely unnecessary because of the hydraulic spike puller utilized by the railroad. Meals sued Port Authority for negligence under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, arguing the railroad effectively chose efficiency over worker safety. Meals alleged his employer failed “to implement procedures necessary to minimize the risk of injury during the pin spike pulling process.”

Meals’ doctor testified that an injury such as Meals’ might increase his risk to glaucoma by 17 percent to 49 percent. It was not a difficult decision to award Meals such a sum after the jury listened to days of testimony and evidence regarding what it was like to watch a needle come at Meals’ eyeball. U.S. District Judge Jose Linares said:

“[The jury] heard and saw how the various surgeries were performed on plaintiff’s eye to hold his eyelid open. They also heard how a metal speculum was placed inside plaintiff’s eye to hold his eyelid open. They also learned that plaintiff was wide awake – and could see – when a 30-guage needle entered his eyeball and penetrated all the way through his sclera. They learned that plaintiff was so ‘freaked out’ during these procedures that he had to physically be strapped down with what felt like handcuffs. They learned how his pain medication wore off halfway through at least one of his medical procedures.”

Protective eye gear

Port Authority counter-argued that Meals’ own negligence led to his injury because it’s unclear if Meals was wearing protective eye gear at the time of his injury. On appeal from the February 2014 trial, Port Authority argued that the District Court erred by allowing the jury to consider questions about workers compensation payment Meals received while on medical leave.

“The introduction of evidence regarding payments made to an injured plaintiff employee, such as information about workers compensation, is generally prohibited “due to the potentially prejudicial effect of such evidence,” the District Court said. The Third Circuit, however, found no error in upholding the lower courts’ rulings because the Port Authority took issue with what the Third Circuit called “crossing the line between acceptable advocacy and imprudent zeal.” Meals’ counsel allegedly made multiple inappropriate remarks to the jury, such as:

  • “Shame on [the Port Authority’s counsel] for trying to make ‘that kind of argument’” in response to the claim that there was no evidence of what struck Meals in the eye.
  • Calling the Port Authority’s assertions disingenuous.
  • Referring to the Port Authority’s counsel’s request for Meals to put on his eye protection while on the stand as a “parlor trick that was very O.J. like, the glove didn’t fit right.”
  • Stating the Port Authority’s cross-examination of Meals was “a great lawyer’s [sic], slide it in, slide it out.”

The Third Circuit affirmed the lowers courts and denied the Port Authority’s request for a new trial. In civil trials, the Third Circuit said, “Improper comments during closing arguments rarely rise to the level of reversible error.”

Tte case is James Meals v. Port Authority Trans Hudson Co., No. 14-3281 (3d Cir. 2015)

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