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Supreme Court rules against railroad in Gwinnett suit

ATLANTA -- Georgia's highest court upheld a ruling against CSX railroad and in favor of a Gwinnett union official who slipped on a puddle of soap and fell on some stairs in 2004, according to opinions released Monday.

In a 6-to-1 vote, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld an earlier Georgia Court of Appeals decision involving CSX conductor and union leader Larry Smith and the railroad.

In 2004, Smith slipped on a small puddle of liquid soap and injured his left knee while climbing stairs to attend a mandatory meeting at a railroad office building in Toledo, Ohio.

A year later, Smith underwent knee surgery. In 2007, he sued his employer for damages under the Federal Employer's Liability Act in Gwinnett County, court officials said.

The higher courts found fault in how the local trial was handled.

Before his trial in Gwinnett, Smith filed a motion to exclude any evidence that CSX had disciplined him before the incident. The night before Smith slipped, officials said, two supervisors had observed him hop from a moving train as it came into the rail yard, violating safety rules. Smith was pulled from service pending further investigation.

A Gwinnett trial court granted Smith's motion to exclude the evidence.

Nevertheless, in opening statements, CSX attorneys said Smith should not have been at the building that morning as he'd been taken of service. Four days later, jurors ruled in favor of CSX. Smith filed a motion for a new trial, which the trial court denied.

The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the Gwinnett County court's denial and ordered a new trial. It held that the trial court erred in refusing to give the jury an instruction about a federal regulation that Smith claimed applied to the stairs where he fell. CSX then appealed to the state Supreme Court.

On appeal, the railroad's lawyers argued the stairs in the CSX administration building were general office building stairs, and therefore exempt from federal safety regulations.

In an opinion released Monday, Justice George Carley disagreed, finding that general and industry-specific safety standards "apply to railroad office buildings."

The amount of damages Smith is seeking was not specified.

Murder convictions upheld

In separate matters, Justices upheld murder convictions and life sentences for two men convicted in Gwinnett County two years ago.

Larry Bowling was convicted in May 2009 of fatally shooting his girlfriend, Melody Harrell, 20, in the face following a late-night argument at a Buford karaoke bar in April 2004.

The shooting happened as the couple were riding in a van down Bona Road. Once shot, Harrell, who was driving, lost control of the vehicle, and it slammed into a house.

In the other case, Manuel Bonilla was convicted in September 2009 of fatally stabbing his cousin, Jose Reyes, 26, on Christmas morning a decade prior.

Bonilla was arrested in Kansas City in 2008 after authorities say he jumped borders, swapped aliases and crossed state lines to elude them for nearly nine years.