It’s amazing how much you can get wrong without legally causing injury. Especially if you’re a railway.
On 3 November 2011 a keen runner in Northfield Falls, Vermont, USA, was driving around mapping out running routes. He drove down Slaughterhouse Road with the windows of his truck up and the music playing. Slaughterhouse Road crosses a railway line. As the driver crossed that rail line he was struck by a loaded freight train, suffering severe injuries. He sued the railway operator alleging, inter alia, that it had failed to provide adequate lines of sight for motorists to see oncoming trains and to install adequate warning devices.
At trial a jury in the Chittenden Superior Court found that there had been no negligence by the railway. The plaintiff appealed on a number of grounds. The two most interesting were that –
- The trial court erred by preventing him arguing that the defendant was liable based on the absence of a “crossbuck” sign on the right hand side of the road and of an ‘advance warning’ sign.
- The court erred by refusing to direct a verdict finding liability as a matter of law due to breach of a safety statute.
The Supreme Court of Vermont dismissed the appeal. On the first point it found that no reasonable jury could have found that the absence of a crossbuck sign on the right caused or contributed to the collision. That is, such a sign would not have given approaching motorists any warning greater than that already provided by the crossbuck sign on the left. The Court pointed out that –
Although causation is normally left for the jury to determine, “it may be decided as a matter of law where the proof is so clear that reasonable minds cannot draw different conclusions or where all reasonable minds would construe the facts and circumstances one way.”
For much the same reason the Court also concluded that the trial court had been right to reject the argument relating to the advance warning sign.
On the second point, it was assumed that the plaintiff was correct in his assertion that the railway had breached Vermont statute 5 VSA §3673 which at the relevant time stated
A person or corporation operating a railroad in this State shall cause all trees, shrubs, and bushes to be destroyed at reasonable times within the surveyed boundaries of their lands, for a distance of 80 rods [about a quarter-mile] in each direction from all public grade crossings.
The plaintiff had sought (and the trial court refused to grant) a directed verdict as to “the vegetation violation of the Vermont statute”. The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court. It noted that even when a safety code breach is established, evidence that a defendant had acted as a reasonably prudent person would rebut the presumption of negligence arising from the breach. It was open to the jury to find that the railway had acted with reasonable care. Furthermore, even if negligence had been made out, the plaintiff still needed to establish causation which he had failed to do.