796 S.E.2d 556 (Va. 2017), 160277, Coutlakis v. CSX Transp., Inc.

Docket Nº160277
Citation796 S.E.2d 556, 293 Va. 212
Opinion JudgeCLEO E. POWELL, JUSTICE
Party NameGINA COUTLAKIS, PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF JAMES COUTLAKIS, DECEASED, AND EXECUTOR OF HIS ESTATE, v. CSX TRANSPORTATION, INC., ET AL
AttorneyGuy C. Crowgey (David O. Prince; Robert T. Vaughan, III; Crowgey & Associates, on briefs), for appellant. Dustin M. Paul (Edward J. Powers; Sean M. Golden; Vandeventer Black, on brief), for appellees.
Judge PanelMcCLANAHAN, JUSTICE concurring.
Case DateMarch 09, 2017
CourtSupreme Court of Virginia

Page 556

796 S.E.2d 556 (Va. 2017)

293 Va. 212

GINA COUTLAKIS, PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF JAMES COUTLAKIS, DECEASED, AND EXECUTOR OF HIS ESTATE,

v.

CSX TRANSPORTATION, INC., ET AL

No. 160277

Supreme Court of Virginia

March 9, 2017

Page 557

FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE CITY OF RICHMOND. Theodore J. Markow, Judge Designate.

Guy C. Crowgey (David O. Prince; Robert T. Vaughan, III; Crowgey & Associates, on briefs), for appellant.

Dustin M. Paul (Edward J. Powers; Sean M. Golden; Vandeventer Black, on brief), for appellees.

OPINION

Page 558

[293 Va. 215] PRESENT: All the Justices

CLEO E. POWELL, JUSTICE

Gina Coutlakis (" Gina" ) appeals the judgment of the trial court sustaining a demurrer on the basis that her action was barred because her husband, James Coutlakis (" James" ), was contributorily negligent.

I. BACKGROUND

As the present case was decided on demurrer, " we recite the facts contained in the pleadings and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Martin v. Ziherl, 269 Va. 35, 38, 607 S.E.2d 367, 368 (2005). So viewed, the record demonstrates that, on September 4, 2015, Gina filed her third amended complaint against CSX Transportation, Inc. (" CSX" ), Brian Crowder (" Crowder" ), and Daniel Epstein (" Epstein" ) (collectively the " Appellees" ), alleging that their negligence resulted in the death of James. In her complaint, Gina alleged that, on July 6, 2013, James was walking adjacent to railroad tracks owned by CSX. At the time, James was listening to music on his cellular telephone through earbuds. As a result, James was unaware of the fact that a CSX train was approaching him from behind.

Gina further alleged that Crowder, the train's conductor, and Epstein, the train's engineer, had a chance to avoid the accident, as they saw James while he was several hundred yards in front of the [293 Va. 216] train. However, as James continued to walk along the tracks, showing no sign that he was aware of the approaching train, neither Crowder nor Epstein took any steps to alert James or avoid a collision. James was subsequently " struck by a part of the train that extended out from the side of the body of the [t]rain which caused

Page 559

severe injuries to his head and . . . shoulder," killing him immediately.

CSX, Crowder and Epstein collectively demurred, arguing that, even when viewed in the light most favorable to Gina, James's contributory negligence was evident on the face of the complaint and, therefore, Gina's claim was barred. The defendants further asserted that Gina's reliance on the last clear chance doctrine was misplaced, because James's negligence was ongoing at the time he was struck. After hearing argument on the matter, the trial court sustained the demurrer.

Gina appeals.

II. ANALYSIS

On appeal, Gina argues that the trial court erred in sustaining the Appellees' demurrer. According to Gina, her third amended complaint contained sufficient facts to support her allegation that the last clear chance doctrine may apply to the present case and, therefore, James's contributory negligence did not require dismissal of her complaint. We agree. The purpose of a demurrer is to determine whether a [complaint] states a cause of action upon which the requested relief may be granted. A demurrer tests the legal sufficiency of facts alleged in pleadings, not the strength of proof. Accordingly, we accept as true all properly pled facts and all inferences fairly drawn from those facts. Because the decision whether to grant a demurrer involves issues of law, we review the circuit court's judgment de novo.

Abi-Najm v. Concord Condo., LLC, 280 Va. 350, 356-57, 699 S.E.2d 483, 486-87 (2010) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

At present, this Court has only recognized two types of plaintiff who may avail themselves of the last clear chance [293 Va. 217] doctrine. The first type of plaintiff, the helpless plaintiff, is a plaintiff who " negligently placed himself in a situation of peril from which he is physically unable to remove himself." Greear v. Noland Co., 197 Va. 233, 238, 89 S.E.2d 49, 53 (1955). In the case of a helpless plaintiff, " the defendant is liable if he saw, or should have seen, [the plaintiff] in time to avert the accident by using reasonable care." Id.

The present case deals with the second type of plaintiff, the inattentive plaintiff. An inattentive plaintiff is one who " has negligently placed himself in a situation of peril from which he is physically able to remove himself, but is unconscious of his peril." Id. at 238-39, 89 S.E.2d at 53. In the case of an inattentive plaintiff, " the defendant is liable only if he saw the plaintiff and realized, or ought to have realized, [the plaintiff's] peril in time to avert the accident by using reasonable care." Id. at 239, 89 S.E.2d at 53.

There can be little doubt that, under Greear, Gina's third amended complaint contains sufficient allegations to survive demurrer.1 Notably, Gina alleged that James was unaware of his peril2, that Crowder and

Page 560

Epstein saw James, that Crowder and Epstein knew or should have known that James was in peril, and that [293 Va. 218] Crowder and Epstein had sufficient time to take action to avoid the accident, had they used reasonable care.

The Appellees, however, argue that neither Greear nor the last clear chance doctrine applies to the present case because James's negligence continued up to the point of the accident, thereby making it a proximate cause of his injuries. In making this argument, the Appellees note that, prior to Greear, this Court recognized that the last clear chance doctrine had " no application to a case where both parties are equally guilty of neglect of an identical duty, the consequences of which continue on the part of both to the moment of the injury and proximately contribute thereto." Roanoke Ry. & Elec. Co. v. Carroll, 112 Va. 598, 604, 72 S.E. 125, 128 (1911). See also Harris Motor Lines, Inc. v. Green, 184 Va. 984, 991, 37 S.E.2d 4, 6 (1946) (" [W]here two people are both guilty of continuous acts of negligence down to the time of the accident, the doctrine of the last clear chance does not apply; otherwise there would be nothing left of the law of contributory or concurring negligence." ). The Appellees assert that Greear did not expressly overrule the line of cases addressing this continuing negligence rule. Indeed, they assert this Court's repeated admonishment that " the last clear chance doctrine does not supersede the principle of contributory negligence, meaning negligence on the part of the injured person which contributed as a proximate cause to his injury," Greear, 197 Va. at 237-38, 89 S.E.2d at 52-53, is a tacit acknowledgement that the continuing negligence rule was unaffected by Greear. They further note that this Court continues to recognize that " [a] negligent plaintiff may recover only if his negligence was a remote rather than a proximate cause of the accident." Williams v. Harrison, 255 Va. 272, 276-77, 497 S.E.2d 467, 470 (1998). We disagree with the Appellees.

The last clear chance doctrine " means precisely what the name implies -- that is, that one of the litigants had a last clear chance to avoid inflicting the damage or injury, notwithstanding the fact that the other litigant had previously, by his negligence, placed himself in a situation of peril." Eisenhower v. Jeter, 205 Va. 159, 163, 135 S.E.2d 786, 788-89 (1964). In Greear, the Court acknowledged that there were two existing approaches to the application of the last clear chance doctrine. The first approach, referred to as the contributory negligence approach, focused on whether the plaintiff's [293 Va. 219] contributory negligence was ongoing and, therefore, a proximate cause of the accident. Greear, 197 Va. at 238, 89 S.E.2d at 53 (citing Anderson v. Payne, 189 Va. 712, 54 S.E.2d 82 (1949)). This approach is akin to the continuing negligence rule espoused by the Appellees. The second approach is more akin to the approach advanced by Gina, as it focused on whether the defendant " saw [the plaintiff] and realized, or should have realized, his situation of peril in time to avert the accident." Id. (citing Lanier v. Johnson, 190 Va. 1, 55 S.E.2d 442 (1949)). Addressing these two approaches, the Court noted that " the contributory...

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