A $19 million damage award to the widow of a man killed when a train struck him as he attempted to cross the tracks has been affirmed.
Defendant railroad company had sought a new trial based primarily on a typo and alleged “intentional non-disclosures” by a single juror. The Missouri Supreme Court found these arguments unpersuasive.
Court records reveal decedent was a 53-year-old businessman who died when his pickup truck was struck by a northbound freight train at an unguarded crossing on a county road. The crossing is marked by “passive railroad crossbuck signs,” but no flashing lights, bells or crossing gates to warn people of oncoming trains. Furthermore, the road crosses the tracks at what is described as “an extreme angle,” which plaintiff alleged created a hazardous intersection that was made even more dangerous by visual obstacles, such as overgrown vegetation.
Plaintiff presented evidence of numerous “near-misses” at this intersection before this fatal crash in 2012. The crossing, decedent’s widow argued, did not meet basic industry safety standards (specifically because they did not trim the vegetation that had become overgrown around the crossing), the railroad company defendant knew that and yet failed to seize on numerous opportunities to correct this danger.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration reports there are 250,000 intersections where a roadway crosses a railroad track at the same level or grade, and this includes those on both public and private roads. While overall highway safety has improved in recent years, the number of people injured and killed at railroad crossings continues to soar. There are thousands of incidents annually, with about 500 of those involving tractor-trailers (with just those incidents occurring about 10 times weekly). (These crashes occur too often in Florida, and they are usually fatal for the motor vehicle occupant).
In this trial, jurors determined defendant railroad company, which was responsible for maintenance of the track, was 90 percent liable for what happened. Jurors determined plaintiff’s damages to be $20 million, but that figure was reduced to $19 million to account for the contributory negligence.
On appeal, defense argued it should get a new trial because it was denied the opportunity to conduct a proper voir dire (jury selection) because the names of one of the jurors was spelled incorrectly on a form. This was an issue she did not correct (though she did use the proper spelling of her husband’s name). In filling out her questionnaire, she also indicated she’d never made a previous claim to recover damages for physical injuries or property. Defense relied on that misspelling when conducting a case search to vet the juror, ultimately finding no case involving a woman by that name.
When the juror reported for jury selection, she told the staff in the circuit court her name was not spelled correctly, and that information was relayed to both parties by the deputy clerk. A handwritten note was also made to the master list being used by both sides. The juror did not answer in the affirmative when the judge asked whether any jurors had been a party to litigation – even though, as it was revealed later, she had been a party to a number of lawsuits – most notably a wrongful death lawsuit in which she was a plaintiff. She did not answer in the affirmative when asked if they or close friends or family members had been involved in a motor vehicle accident, even though her son was killed in a crash that gave rise to her wrongful death lawsuit.
This juror was selected for trial and after eight days, she and fellow jurors rendered a verdict in plaintiff’s favor.
The state supreme court assumed for the purpose of the appeal that the juror’s non-disclosures were intentional. But even then, the court ruled, it did not create grounds to order a new trial. Defense argued they did not have time to conduct a proper search. However, the high court noted the defense had four hours form the time it was provided the corrected copy of juror names to the time voir dire began – which was ample time to run the juror’s name through a case search list. Had they done this, her prior cases – and subsequent non-disclosures – would have been discovered. The verdict was affirmed.
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Spence v. BNSF Railway Co., May 22, 2018, Missouri Supreme Court
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