Curtis v. Harmon Electronics, Inc., 15018

Citation575 P.2d 1044
Decision Date15 February 1978
Docket NumberNo. 15018,15018
CourtUtah Supreme Court
PartiesDouglas Lee CURTIS, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. HARMON ELECTRONICS, INC., and the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, Defendants and Respondents.

Anthony M. Thurber, Salt Lake City, for plaintiff and appellant.

E. Craig Smay, of VanCott, Bagley, Cornwall & McCarthy, Salt Lake City, for defendants and respondents.

MAUGHAN, Justice:

Plaintiff brought this action to recover for personal injuries sustained when a truck in which he was a passenger collided with a train belonging to the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. At the close of all the evidence by both parties at trial, the court directed a verdict for the defendant. Plaintiff appeals, contending that the trial court erred in directing a verdict and that the issues should have been submitted to the jury. We agree with plaintiff, and reverse. The cause is remanded for trial. Costs to plaintiff. All statutory references are to U.C.A.1953.

This collision occurred at a railroad crossing at 412 West on 9000 South in Salt Lake County. The truck in which plaintiff was riding was travelling east on 9000 South and collided with the second power unit of the south-bound train. Both the train and the truck were travelling approximately 50 mph at the time of the accident.

The crossing was equipped with warning lights and a bell which were in operation at the time, although testimony indicates that it was difficult to perceive whether the lights were flashing due to the bright mid-day glare of the sun. As one approaches the crossing from the west on 9000 South, the view of the tracks to the north is partially obscured by a line of houses and some trees.

Plaintiff's position on appeal is that a jury question exists as to whether the train sounded its whistle for the proper time before it entered the crossing. Plaintiff produced the testimony of four persons near the crossing at the time of the accident, three of whom stated they first heard the train whistle only a few seconds before the collision. Two of these were two women in a car which travelled over the crossing just before the train reached it. The passenger in this car stated they saw the train approaching the crossing from the north as they were driving west on 9000 South. They speculated whether they could get across the track before the train reached the crossing. They first heard the whistle when they were on the track, with the train approximately 300 feet away.

The third person, the owner of a gas station on the southeast corner of the crossing, was working on a truck in front of the station when he heard the train whistle, which caused him to look up. He estimated that he heard the whistle around five or six seconds before the collision occurred.

The fourth person did not recall hearing any whistle, although he remembered hearing the train itself approach.

The train engineer testified for the defendant he always sounded the whistle for every crossing as required. A Utah Highway Patrol officer testified he heard the whistle at a point four tenths of a mile north of the crossing.

The testimony of these persons indicates that the whistle was sounded four tenths of a mile from the crossing, and again approximately 300 feet from the crossing. The testimony conflicts on whether the whistle was sounded between these points. Three of plaintiff's witnesses claim to have heard no whistle before the last one sounded 300 feet from the road. The engineer states he remembers blowing the whistle "because I blow the whistle for every crossing."

The parties agree the law requires the train to sound a whistle or a bell before a crossing but disagree as to when. Section 56-1-14 states in relevant part:

Every locomotive shall be provided with a bell which shall be rung continuously from a point not less than eighty rods from any city or town street or public highway grade crossing until such city or town street or public highway grade crossing shall be crossed, but, except in towns and at terminal points, the sounding of the locomotive whistle or siren at least one-fourth of a mile before reaching any such grade crossing shall be deemed equivalent to ringing the bell as aforesaid; . . . .

The defendant asserts the meaning of this statute is, if the train chooses to sound its whistle instead of ringing a bell continuously for 80 rods prior to the crossing, it need only sound the whistle once at any point prior to one quarter of a mile from the crossing; thus, since the train did sound its whistle four tenths of a mile away, the statute was satisfied. This contention cannot stand, in view of the language and purpose of the statute. The statute requires a bell to be rung for 80 rods (one quarter mile) before the crossing, for the purpose of warning approaching traffic of the train's approach. The sounding of the whistle is a substitute for the bell, but there is no reason to assume the warning purpose is in anyway changed. The statute says the sounding of the whistle "shall be deemed equivalent to ringing (of) the bell as aforesaid." The clear intent of the statute is to require either the ringing of a bell or the sounding of a whistle for one quarter of a mile before entering the crossing. 1 Allowing the sounding of a whistle at any point before reaching one quarter of a mile from the crossing would produce obviously absurd results.

A sound rule of statutory interpretation is that a statute is presumed not to be intended to produce absurd consequences and that where possible it will be given a reasonable and sensible construction. 2 This Court recognizes its duty to render such interpretation of the laws as will best promote the protection of the public. 3

The defendant had a statutory duty to sound the whistle for the last one quarter mile before the crossing, the violation of which renders defendant liable for all damages caused by such failure.

In reviewing a trial court's ruling pertaining to a motion for directed verdict, this Court reviews the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party to afford him the benefit of all inferences which the...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT