618 F.2d 332 (5th Cir. 1980), 78-1181, Young v. Illinois Cent. Gulf R. Co.

Docket Nº:78-1181.
Citation:618 F.2d 332
Party Name:Mrs. Jessie Mae YOUNG, Individually and as Mother, Natural Guardian and Next Friend of Dianne Young, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. ILLINOIS CENTRAL GULF RAILROAD COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee, National Railroad Passenger Corp., Defendant.
Case Date:June 04, 1980
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Page 332

618 F.2d 332 (5th Cir. 1980)

Mrs. Jessie Mae YOUNG, Individually and as Mother, Natural

Guardian and Next Friend of Dianne Young,

Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

ILLINOIS CENTRAL GULF RAILROAD COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee,

National Railroad Passenger Corp., Defendant.

No. 78-1181.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

June 4, 1980

Page 333

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 334

Richard T. Phillips, D. Briggs Smith, Jr., Batesville, Miss., for plaintiff-appellant.

Roberson, Luckett & Robinson, Semmes Luckett, Clarksdale, Miss., for defendant-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi.

Before BROWN, GEWIN and POLITZ, Circuit Judges.

GEWIN, Circuit Judge:

Appellant Jessie Mae Young brought a wrongful death action 1 against the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad Company (ICG) 2 following the death of her husband at one of the railroad's rural crossings. The suit was tried twice below. The first trial resulted in a verdict of $125,000 for the plaintiff but a new trial was granted due to juror misconduct. In the second trial a verdict for the railroad was returned. Appellant seeks reversal based on alleged errors of the court in (1) granting ICG a new trial, (2) excluding certain evidence, and (3) giving certain instructions to the jury. We reverse based on the erroneous exclusions of evidence and inappropriate jury instructions.

The Facts

On the night of June 9, 1975 at about 10:00 o'clock p. m. Willie James Young, 29, was returning home after visiting with some friends. He was traveling alone in his automobile in a northerly direction toward Como, Mississippi on a public gravel road known as the "Section Line Road." ICG's railroad intersects the road on which Mr.

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Young was traveling from the southeast to the northwest at a fourteen degree (14o ) angle. Because of the angle a train headed northwest toward Como approaches the crossing from the right and rear of an automobile on the Section Line Road. A Panola Industries (Choctaw) plant is located down the track from the road in the direction from which a train traveling northwest would approach the crossing. Bright outdoor lighting surrounds the industrial plant. It is from these lights that the headlight of a train would emerge as it approached the Section Line Road crossing.

As the gravel road intersects the crossing it narrows to one lane because there were no timbers used in the crossing and the gravel there was "whipped out" or washed away. On both sides of the one-lane path rails are exposed six to seven inches above the level of the gravel as a result of erosion. The road also curves to the right just before it reaches the track so that in order to traverse the one-lane path and not hit the exposed rails a motorist must turn to the right just prior to crossing the railroad.

As Mr. Young approached the crossing there were no warning signs erected on the south side of the track. A "Mississippi Law: Stop" sign 3 had been knocked down in a previous collision at the crossing several weeks earlier. 4 A similar sign on the other side of the track had a dull black back and was not visible at night from the south side of the crossing. There were no other landmarks at the crossing.

Mr. Young approached the crossing at about 25 to 30 miles per hour according to the train crewmen. ICG's passenger train, the "Panama Limited", approached the crossing from the southeast at the same time traveling at 79 miles per hour. 5 The train's headlight was functioning properly but its white oscillating warning light, or "Mars light" had burned out before the train's last previous stop. 6

When Mr. Young's car reached the crossing the train was still short of the whistle post which is located 900 feet from the crossing. The train crewmen testified that the car had plenty of time to safely cross the tracks when it arrived at the crossing. Instead of turning to the right to maneuver the narrow crossing, however, the car made a left turn onto the track in front of the train. Its right wheels ran between the rails and its left wheels ran on the outside or southwestern side of the rails. Mr. Young stopped his car approximately 125 feet from the crossing and attempted to get out. Meanwhile the train had been put into emergency at the whistle post. The speed of the train, however, made it impossible for it to stop that quickly. 7 Mr. Young was halfway out of the car when he and his car disappeared from the trainmen's view at the front of the train's engine. The train came to a stop 2500 feet northwest of the

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crossing. Mr. Young's car was imbedded on the front of the engine. His dead and mangled body was found about 160 feet from the crossing.

On December 4, 1975 Mr. Young's widow brought this wrongful death action against ICG alleging that her husband's death was proximately caused by the combined negligence of the railroad in the operation of its passenger train and in the maintenance of its railroad crossing. It was plaintiff's theory that the blind nature of the unmarked crossing, the poor condition of the crossing itself, the lack of the appropriate warning light on the train and the speed at which the train approached the crossing, all combined to trap Mr. Young in a position of severe danger. Plaintiff alleged that when the deceased approached the crossing nothing alerted him to the presence of the crossing or the eminence of the train. It was her position that without such a warning Mr. Young did not know to make a right turn across the track at precisely the right moment and his car was diverted by the exposed rails to the left side of the one-lane path across the track. She alleged that the speed of the train coupled with the camouflaging of its headlight among the Choctaw plant lights behind it and the absence of its Mars light then made it impossible for Mr. Young to become aware of his eminent position of danger, bring his car to a stop and escape before the train was upon him.

In the first trial of the case the jury agreed with the plaintiff's theory of the case and awarded a verdict of $125,000. While the jury was deliberating, however, one of the alternate jurors informed an attorney for the defendant 8 that the foreman of the jury had, before deliberations began, talked with the other jurors about his personal knowledge of the crossing and told them that he thought it was a bad crossing and that there had been other accidents there prior to the collision involved in this case. 9 The trial court then interviewed all of the jurors about the jury foreman's pre-deliberation comments. The court became satisfied that juror misconduct had occurred and upon proper motion, a new trial was granted to ICG. The second jury found for the railroad and awarded no damages.

The Issues

Mrs. Young's appeal of this case is based primarily on certain erroneous evidentiary rulings and jury instructions which, she contends, gutted the case which she sought to present to the jury. She also argues that the new trial granted by the trial court for juror misconduct was erroneous because (1) the extraneous matters mentioned by the juror should have been admitted into evidence and (2) the defendant knew of the statement of...

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