Martin v. Norfolk Southern Ry. Co., No. E2006-01021-SC-R11-CV

CourtSupreme Court of Tennessee
Writing for the CourtJanice M. Holder
Citation271 S.W.3d 76
PartiesTennie MARTIN et al. v. NORFOLK SOUTHERN RAILWAY COMPANY et al.
Decision Date14 November 2008
Docket NumberNo. E2006-01021-SC-R11-CV
271 S.W.3d 76
Tennie MARTIN et al.
v.
NORFOLK SOUTHERN RAILWAY COMPANY et al.
No. E2006-01021-SC-R11-CV
Supreme Court of Tennessee, at Knoxville.
May 7, 2008 Session.
November 14, 2008.

[271 S.W.3d 79]

Amy J. Farrar and Donald N. Capparella, Nashville, Tennessee, and J.D. Lee, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the Appellants, Tennie Martin and Roya Mitchell.

Emily L. Herman-Thompson and John William Baker, Jr., Knoxville, Tennessee, for the Appellees, Norfolk Southern Railway Company and Anthony D. Worley.

OPINION

JANICE M. HOLDER, C.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which WILLIAM M. BARKER, CORNELIA A. CLARK, and GARY R. WADE joined. WILLIAM C. KOCH, JR., JJ., concurring in part.


This case comes before us on an appeal of the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Because the plaintiffs have established the existence of several genuine issues of material fact, we conclude that summary judgment is inappropriate. We further conclude that the trial court did not err in excluding evidence of a defendant's subsequent remedial measures. We therefore reverse the trial court's judgment and remand for further proceedings.

I. Factual and Procedural History
A.

This case arises out of the tragic death of Kathryn Martin, who was killed when her vehicle was hit by a train. The following facts about the incident are undisputed.

The collision occurred on May 12, 2002, at approximately 9:00 a.m. On that day, the weather was clear, and there was no rain. Mrs. Martin was operating her pickup truck northward on Marlow Circle, a road leading into the parking lot of Moran Baptist Church. Norfolk Southern Railway Company ("Norfolk") maintains railroad tracks that intersect this section of Marlow Circle. The railroad crossing at

271 S.W.3d 80

that location is of a type commonly described as a passive crossing—that is, it does not contain any traffic control devices that activate when a train is approaching. Rather, the crossing is marked with crossbuck signs warning motorists that a railroad crossing is ahead. In addition, the crossing consists of two separate tracks: a mainline track, which carries regular train traffic; and a storage track, which is primarily used for storing equipment. From Mrs. Martin's direction of approach, she would have crossed the storage track before reaching the mainline track. The area along the tracks contained trees and other vegetation that obscured motorists' view of the tracks to some degree. The trees and vegetation were located on Norfolk's right-of-way.

Mrs. Martin was very familiar with this particular crossing and consulted with other members of her family to develop an agreed procedure for crossing the tracks safely. According to the Martin family agreement, members of the family would stop in advance of the tracks, lower the windows of the vehicle slightly, turn the radio volume down or off, keep a lookout for a train, listen for a train, and refrain from crossing the tracks until it could be determined that no train was approaching.

On the day in question, Mrs. Martin came to a complete stop before crossing either the storage track or the mainline track. As she was stopped, a train owned by Norfolk and operated by Norfolk's engineer, Anthony Worley, approached from Mrs. Martin's right at approximately thirty-three miles per hour. The train's conductor, Danny Martin ("Conductor Martin") saw the front bumper and hood of Mrs. Martin's truck while she was stopped short of the storage track. He first became aware of the front of her vehicle when the train was approximately 400 feet from the crossing. Given the speed of the train, it would have taken approximately 8.3 seconds for the train to travel 400 feet. At some point during that period of time, Mrs. Martin began to move her vehicle forward. She crossed over the storage track onto the mainline track and was hit by the train.

B.

Teddy Martin,1 the surviving husband of Mrs. Martin, and Tennie Martin and Roya Mitchell, the adult children of Mrs. Martin, filed suit against Norfolk and Mr. Worley. In their complaint, the plaintiffs allege that Norfolk permitted vegetation at the crossing to block Mrs. Martin's view of the approaching train and that Mr. Worley violated Tennessee Code Annotated section 65-12-108(2) (2004) by failing to sound the train's whistle as the train approached the crossing. The plaintiffs allege that each of these failures was not only negligent but also reckless. Accordingly, the plaintiffs are seeking both compensatory and punitive damages.

1. The Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment

The defendants, Norfolk and Mr. Worley, moved for summary judgment, arguing that there were no genuine issues of material fact and that Mrs. Martin was at least fifty percent at fault as a matter of law. The defendants' motion includes several factual assertions.

First, the defendants assert that Mrs. Martin had ample visibility from her initial stopped position and would have seen the train had she merely looked. To support this claim, the defendants submitted photographs that show the visibility from various locations at the crossing.

271 S.W.3d 81

Second, the defendants contend that Mrs. Martin's vehicle moved from its initial position and stopped a second time near the storage track. The defendants refer to the testimony of Conductor Martin to support this assertion.

Third, the defendants assert that from the position of her second stop, Mrs. Martin had a better opportunity to see the train and had more than enough time to safely maneuver her vehicle once the train became visible. In support of these assertions, the defendants offered the deposition testimony of their expert witness, Charles Manning. Mr. Manning testified that within fifteen to twenty feet of the mainline track a motorist would have 900 to 1000 feet of visibility. Mr. Manning further testified that under these circumstances nine to ten seconds would be sufficient for a person to see a train, react, and bring a vehicle to a stop in time to avoid a collision. Conductor Martin also testified that a motorist could see a substantial distance from the storage track.

Finally, the defendants claim that Mr. Worley repeatedly blew the train's whistle as the train approached the crossing and that Mrs. Martin had an opportunity to hear the train had she merely listened for it. In support of this assertion, the defendants offered the deposition testimony of Mr. Worley and the affidavits of two witnesses who stated that they heard a train whistle around the time of the collision. In light of these alleged facts, the defendants argue that no reasonable jury could conclude that Mrs. Martin acted reasonably or that she was any less than fifty percent at fault for the collision.

2. The Plaintiffs' Response to the Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment

In the plaintiffs' response to the motion for summary judgment, the plaintiffs set forth their own factual assertions. First, the plaintiffs assert that Mrs. Martin initially stopped her vehicle 12.93 feet from the near rail of the storage track and 27 feet from the near rail of the mainline track. In support of this assertion, the plaintiffs submit the testimony and affidavit of their expert, Kenneth Heathington. Mr. Heathington based his calculation of Mrs. Martin's stopping position on Conductor Martin's testimony that he could see the front bumper and hood of Mrs. Martin's truck when the train was approximately 400 feet from the crossing.

Second, the plaintiffs assert that from this stopped position, vegetation would have limited Mrs. Martin's ability to see more than 300 feet in the direction from which the train was approaching. This assertion is also based on the testimony and affidavit of Kenneth Heathington.

Third, the plaintiffs assert that when Mrs. Martin began to move forward from her stopped position she could not see the train because it was still over 300 feet away. This assertion is consistent with Conductor Martin's testimony that the train was 400 feet away from the crossing when he first became aware of Mrs. Martin's vehicle.

Fourth, the plaintiffs assert that Mrs. Martin did not stop a second time but rather moved slowly and continuously across the crossing. In support of this assertion, the plaintiffs provide the deposition testimony of an eyewitness, Cecil Smith. According to Mr. Smith, Mrs. Martin's vehicle was "creeping" across the railroad crossing prior to the collision. The plaintiffs also rely on Conductor Martin's initial written statement in which he checked a box indicating that Mrs. Martin had "Stopped, then Proceeded" rather than checking a box designated "Other" and describing Mrs. Martin's second stop.

271 S.W.3d 82

Fifth, the plaintiffs claim that once Mrs. Martin began to move forward from her initial stopped position she had insufficient time to perceive the train and bring her vehicle to a stop short of the mainline tracks. These allegations are also supported by the testimony and affidavit of Kenneth Heathington.

Finally, the plaintiffs claim that Mr. Worley did not sound the train's whistle as the train approached the crossing. In support of this assertion, the plaintiffs submit Mr. Smith's testimony that he was in a position to hear a whistle but did not hear it. The plaintiffs argue that these factual assertions demonstrate the existence of genuine issues of material fact and therefore the defendants' motion for summary judgment should have been denied.

3. The Rulings of the Trial Court and Court of Appeals

In its ruling, the trial court emphasized that Mrs. Martin could see at least 300 feet from her stopped position and that she was familiar with the crossing. Specifically, the trial court stated, "Had she remained stopped, had she looked and listened, there's no question in my mind, and in my opinion no question in any reasonable mind that she could have seen the train." The trial court determined that no reasonable jury could...

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    ...submitting an affidavit explaining the necessity for further discovery pursuant to Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.06.” Martin v. Norfolk S. Ry. Co., 271 S.W.3d 76, 84 (Tenn.2008) (citations omitted). When reviewing the evidence, we must determine whether factual disputes exist. In evaluating the trial......
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    ...as the resolution of the motion is a matter of law. Godfrey v. Ruiz, 90 S.W.3d 692, 695 (Tenn. 2002); see also Martin v. Norfolk S. Ry., 271 S.W.3d 76, 83 (Tenn. 2008). We view the evidence in favor of the non-moving party by resolving all reasonable inferences in its favor and discarding a......
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    ...that it is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Green v. Green, 293 S.W.3d 493, 513 (Tenn. 2009) (citing Martin v. Norfolk S. Ry., 271 S.W.3d 76, 83 (Tenn. 2008); Amos v. Metro. Gov't of Nashville & Davidson County, 259 S.W.3d 705, 710 (Tenn. 2008)). "The moving party may make the re......
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    • Court of Appeals of Tennessee
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