In Stephens v. CSX Transportation, plaintiff sued the railroad company and the state department of transportation, alleging the railroad company was negligent in failing to sound the train’s horn far enough in advance of the crossing and for failure to remove trees and other vegetation that obstructed the driver’s view of the track. With respect to the state department of transportation, he alleged there was a negligent failure to properly inspect the railroad crossing, and further that stop signs and the stop line were installed at improper locations.
Jurors in the first trial found in favor of defendants, and the appellate court affirmed that judgment. However, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed, finding portions of the judge’s instructions to jurors were erroneous and adversely affected plaintiff.
Prevention of train accidents in Orlando is a major concern for both the Florida Department of Transportation, as well as officials for the City of Orlando. While FDOT is weighing a proposal to assign a trooper to every railroad crossing in order to help prevent crashes, the city is considering installing cameras at crossings instead.
City leaders say the installation of cameras a fraction of the busiest of the 35 railroad crossings in the city would discourage drivers from trying to go around the tracks or drive over them before the safety arms drop down. The most recent train-versus-car crash in Orlando happened in January. Officials say action must be taken as SunRail is expanding farther south within the next two years.
The new cameras would be similar to the controversial “red light cameras,” and would issue a warning to drivers who attempt to cross around the barrier that to do so is illegal and a violation will result in a $165 ticket.
In the Stephens case, plaintiff’s granddaughter was 12 when she was riding in the right rear passenger seat of her mother’s vehicle. Her mother’s boyfriend was in the front seat. The mother would later say she stopped at the stop sign and pulled forward to the stop line, which was almost 10 feet from the track. She stated she did not hear or see the train approaching as she drove onto the track. She only heard the train’s horn, she said, as the drove onto the track. She tried to speed up and get out of the way, but it was too late. The train struck her vehicle.
All three passengers suffered injuries, but the 12-year-old girl’s were the worst. She suffered a traumatic brain injury that left her in a coma for a month. She has since had to undergo significant speech and occupational therapies, but still suffers significant neurological and physical impairments.
The girl’s mother was legally impaired, with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.18 percent (more than twice the legal limit) and she also had prescription drugs in her system. However, mother denied she was impaired.
At trial plaintiff presented evidence of a program the train company initiated four years before the crash to help improve sight distances for approaching vehicles. The project at this location was halted due to a dispute with a landowner. Some witnesses testified the view was unobstructed, but an expert witness for plaintiff testified the placement of the stop line and stop sign were too close to the tracks, and the train conductor hadn’t blown the horn far enough in advance. She stated the accident wouldn’t have happened had defendants used reasonable care.
Still, jurors decided in favor of defense, and appellate court affirmed. Plaintiff appealed to state supreme court.
Although the high court agreed with appellate court on issues it considered, the high court found the appeals court was wrong to limit its review to only those instructions to jurors that had to do with the alleged breach of duty of reasonable care. The high court found other portions of the judge’s charge were erroneous, which could have tainted the jury’s consideration of the very first question: Were defendants negligent?
Thus, the state high court reversed and remanded for a new trial.
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Stephens v. CSX Transportation, Nov. 4, 2015, South Carolina Supreme Court
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