Ignoring the Train

Maybe the railway needed a sign.  Something like “Warning: this train may seriously damage your health”.

Ja’Lin Williams was 17 years old when he went with some friends to Whihala Beach in Whiting, Indiana.  The group was approached by a police officer who told them they were trespassing and would have to leave.  They fled on foot across a set of railway tracks as a train approached.  Subsequent video footage showed that the train’s horn and bells were sounding, its lights were on, and that warning lights on  surrounding gates were also flashing.  Despite this, Williams ran into the path of the train and was struck.  He sought compensation from the railway.  He and his friends stated that they had neither seen flashing lights nor heard warning bells.

train by trees against blue sky
Photo by RAJAT JAIN on Pexels.com

The Indiana Comparative Fault Act provides that –

(a) In an action based on fault that is brought against:

(1) one (1) defendant;  or

(2) two (2) or more defendants who may be treated as a single party;

the claimant is barred from recovery if the claimant’s contributory fault is greater than the fault of all persons whose fault proximately contributed to the claimant’s damages.

The railway sought and was granted summary dismissal of the claim by the US District Court.  Mr Williams appealed.

The US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal.  On the video evidence, Williams had had ample warning of the trains approach but had ignored it.  Moreover, the Court noted that in Indiana law a train operator has no duty to slow a train on seeing a person crossing, but may generally presume the person will take steps to avoid injury: Ohio & M Railway Co v Walker, 15 NE 234 (Ind. 1888) and New York Cent R Co v Casey, 14 NE2d 714 (Ind. 1938).  As a result, the Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court’s conclusion that no reasonable fact-finder could conclude that Williams was 50% or less at fault.

Williams v Norfolk Southern Corporation (7th Cir., 19 March 2019)

What did you see (or not)?

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.

Ziniti Accident
Accident scene (Image: Barre-Montpelier Times Argus)

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 –

  1. 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.
  2. The court erred by refusing to direct a verdict finding liability as a matter of law due to breach of a safety statute.
Crossbuck Sign (image from here)

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.

Accident scene from driver’s view (Image: Google)

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.

Ziniti v New England Central Railroad Inc, 2019 VT 9

Crimes on the Rails (part 2)

A case out of Pennsylvania bookends with the case of R v Harding (2018) about which I wrote the other day.

Image from here

On 12 May 2015 Brandon Bostian was the engineer on a train from Washington to New York.  The train entered a bend in the line at 106 mph (170 kph).  This was more than double the speed limit.  The train derailed, injuring 150 passengers and killing eight.  A government investigation found that Bostian was not affected by alcohol or drugs and was not using a cellphone.  It concluded that he had lost his bearings while distracted by operational radio communications.

The family of one of the deceased brought a private prosecution against Bostian for (inter alia) involuntary manslaughter.  Pennsylvania law states that

A person is guilty of involuntary manslaughter when as a direct result of … the doing of a lawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner, he causes the death of another person.

The charges were dismissed by the Philadelphia Municipal Court.  The Attorney-General appealed to the Court of Common Pleas.  On 6 February 2018 Lewis J reversed the Municipal Court’s decision, finding that there was sufficient evidence for Bostian to be presented for trial.  It appears a trial date has not yet been set.

Commonwealth v Bostian (2018), Philadelphia Inquirer, 6 February 2018 and Register Citizen (Torrington, CT), 6  February 2018.

Crimes on the Rails (part 1)

An interesting case came out of Quebec earlier this year regarding a railway disaster.

Image from here

On 6 July 2013 a train loaded with crude oil rolled out of control into the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic.  It derailed in the town. Its load of oil exploded.  Part of the town was destroyed and 47 people were killed.  The train’s engineer admitted that when he left the train that night he did not apply enough brakes to fix it in place on a sloping section of railway line.  He also admitted not having conducted a proper brake test.

The engineer was charged with criminal negligence causing death, as were the railway company’s traffic controller and manager of train operations.  Quebec Criminal Code §220 provides that –

Every person who by criminal negligence causes death to another person is guilty of an indictable offence and liable … to imprisonment for life.

The charges were heard in the Quebec Superior Court before Dumas J and a jury of twelve.  In January 2018 each of the defendants was acquitted.  One can infer that the defendants’ admitted carelessness was not considered to be the gross carelessness required by the criminal law.

The Queen v Harding, Labrie and Demaitre (2018), The Globe and Mail, 20 January 2018 and Kingston Whig-Standard, 19 January 2018.