The South Carolina Supreme Court has ordered a new trial in the case of Stephens v. CSX Transportation, where the grandfather of a 12-year-old girl who suffered severe and permanent brain injuries in a train accident is suing the railroad company.
Her mother was behind the wheel at the time the train collided with the vehicle, wherein teen was a rear seat passenger. It would later be revealed the mother was under the influence of alcohol, cough syrup and a muscle relaxer.
However, mother insists she wasn’t intoxicated. Although she stopped at the “stop line” prior to crossing the tracks, she said she neither heard nor saw the train before proceeding. There was no gate or flashing lights at this particular crossing. As she started to cross the tracks, that was the first mother saw of the train. She tried to accelerate off the tracks, but it was too late. She and her boyfriend, a front seat passenger, were seriously injured, but not as badly as her daughter, who will suffer severe cognitive, behavioral and physical disabilities the rest of her life as a result.
The train engineer did later concede he did not signal his horn at the appropriate time as he crossed the tracks.
In the train accident lawsuit, plaintiff named both the private train company and the state department of transportation. He alleged there had been negligence in failure to appropriately sound the horn, in the placement of the stop line and stop sign and in failure to remove vegetation that made it difficult for approaching motorists to see whether a train was near on the tracks.
Defense evidence included the fact that there had been no prior accidents at that crossing in the past 40 years.
However, an expert witness for plaintiff testified that the view for motorists was obstructed and the overgrowth of vegetation failed to comply with industry-established standards of care for railroad crossings. Had defendants complied with these standards, expert opined, the crash would not have happened.
With regard to the horn, state law requires train engineers blow their horn continuously from 1,500 feet of approaching an intersection. In this case, the train event recorder indicated the engineer blew the horn once, and not until the train was within 1,160 feet of crossing.
Plaintiff asserted there was no evidence mother’s impairment level was a factor in the crash, and further there was strong evidence the negligence of defendants were proximate causes of the collision.
However in instructing the jury, the judge reportedly made some errors with respect to defining negligence and breach of defendant’s reasonable duty of care. Jurors ultimately decided defendants were not liable and awarded no damages.
On appeal, plaintiff argued trial court made a number of mistakes, among those being instructions to jurors. Appellate court affirmed the verdict, but the state supreme court reversed and ordered a new trial. The erroneous instructions provided to jurors resulted in a prejudice against plaintiff that may well have affected the outcome of the case.
The Federal Railroad Administration reports that while railroad crossing accidents have fallen by half in the last 20 years, they are still a significant problem. In 2013, for example, there were 2,087 crashes resulting in 929 injuries and 250 deaths.
For more information on recovering damages for injuries stemming from a Florida train accident, contact our offices today.
If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at (888) 751-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.
Stephens v. CSX Transportation, Nov. 4, 2015, South Carolina Supreme Court
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