Norfolk S. Ry. Co. v. Zeagler, No. S12G2031.

CourtGeorgia Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtNAHMIAS
Citation748 S.E.2d 846,293 Ga. 582
Docket NumberNo. S12G2031.
Decision Date23 September 2013
PartiesNORFOLK SOUTHERN RAILWAY COMPANY v. ZEAGLER.

293 Ga. 582
748 S.E.2d 846

NORFOLK SOUTHERN RAILWAY COMPANY
v.
ZEAGLER.

No. S12G2031.

Supreme Court of Georgia.

Sept. 23, 2013.


[748 S.E.2d 848]


J. Steven Stewart, Amanda Rodman Smith, Hall, Bloch, Garland & Meyer, LLP, Macon, GA, for Norfolk Southern Railway Company.

Michael J. Warshauer, Douglas Campbell Dumont, Darl Hilton Champion Jr., Lyle Griffin Warshauer, Warshauer Law Group, P.C., Atlanta, GA, for Zeagler.


Christopher Randall Jordan, Randall A. Jordan, The Jordan Firm, St. Simons Island, for amicus appellant.

Jeffrey R. White, Center for Constitutional Litigation, P.C., Washington, DC, John Anderson Harp, Jefferson C. Callier, Harp & Callier, LLP, Columbus, for amicus appellee.

NAHMIAS, Justice.

[293 Ga. 582]The plaintiff in this case, William Zeagler, was a train conductor employed by the defendant Norfolk Southern Railway Company (“Norfolk Southern”). Zeagler was injured when the train on which he was working collided with a logging truck at a grade crossing. He sued Norfolk Southern under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (“FELA”), 45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq., claiming that the railroad negligently failed to train him on how to avoid or mitigate injury in the event of a grade-crossing collision. The trial court granted summary judgment to Norfolk

[748 S.E.2d 849]

Southern after concluding that the railroad had no duty to train its employees on what to do when a grade-crossing collision is imminent. The Court of Appeals reversed that judgment, see Zeagler v. Norfolk S. R. Co., 317 Ga.App. 302, 730 S.E.2d 657 (2012), and this Court granted certiorari to consider two questions: (1) whether the Court of Appeals erred in reversing the trial court's order granting summary judgment in favor of Norfolk Southern; and (2) whether Zeagler's failure-to-train claim is preempted or precluded by Federal Railroad Administration regulations.

We conclude that the answer to both questions is no. First, the Court of Appeals did not err in reversing the trial court's summary judgment order. Under FELA, Norfolk Southern has a legal duty to use reasonable care in providing a safe workplace for its employees, which includes providing them with such training as is reasonable regarding how to avoid or reduce injury from reasonably foreseeable workplace hazards. It is undisputed that grade-crossing accidents are entirely foreseeable workplace hazards for train conductors, and thus Norfolk Southern had a duty to provide Zeagler with whatever training is reasonably appropriate to protect him from injury in such accidents.

As to whether that duty was breached and whether any breach caused Zeagler's injuries, it may turn out that, as Norfolk Southern argues, there is no reasonable training for train conductors that can avoid or mitigate injuries from the many different varieties of grade-crossing accidents, or that Norfolk Southern provided Zeagler with whatever basic direction is reasonably required, or that the training that is reasonable would not have prevented or mitigated Zeagler's injuries. In opposing Norfolk Southern's summary judgment motion, however, Zeagler offered evidence to the contrary, including evidence from expert witnesses that Norfolk Southern's training in this area does not meet the standard of care and that appropriate training would have at least mitigated Zeagler's injuries. Although the Court [293 Ga. 583]of Appeals' opinion confused the legal and factual elements of a FELA negligence claim to some extent, as we explain in Division 2 below, the court reached the right result, concluding that the genuine issues of material fact regarding breach and causation preclude summary judgment and need to be resolved by trial.

Second, as we explain in Division 3 below, Zeagler's failure-to-train claim is neither preempted nor precluded. Zeagler brings his claim under FELA, which is a federal statute that cannot be “preempted” by another federal law. Nor is his claim precluded by Federal Railroad Administration regulations. We need not decide whether and precisely how the doctrine of preclusion applies in this context, because Norfolk Southern has not identified any regulation that “substantially subsumes” the subject matter of the failure-to-train claim that Zeagler raises under FELA, much less any regulation that is in “intolerable conflict” with his claim. We therefore affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

1. (a) Summary judgment is proper only “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” OCGA § 9–11–56(c). “On appeal from the grant of summary judgment, we construe the evidence most favorably towards the nonmoving party, who is given the benefit of all reasonable doubts and possible inferences.” Ansley v. Raczka–Long, 293 Ga. 138, 140, 744 S.E.2d 55 (2013). And because summary judgment is a matter of law, we review the issue de novo. See Inagawa v. Fayette County, 291 Ga. 715, 715, 732 S.E.2d 421 (2012). In this case, Norfolk Southern was the party that moved for summary judgment, so we consider the evidence in the record in the light most favorable to Zeagler, drawing all reasonable inferences in his favor. Doing so, the record shows as follows.

(b) On July 23, 2007, William Zeagler was 55 years old and had been an employee of Norfolk Southern and its predecessor for 33 years. Zeagler was working that afternoon as the conductor on a train operated by Norfolk Southern. As the train approached a point in Dodge County where the tracks run across a road, the crew took some safety precautions for such a grade crossing: obeying

[748 S.E.2d 850]

Norfolk Southern's self-imposed speed restriction of 35 miles per hour, blaring the horn, ringing the engine bells, burning the headlight on bright, and flashing the ditch lights on and off. The engineer and the brake operator stood in the front of the locomotive cabin keeping a lookout ahead, while Zeagler stood in the middle of the cabin speaking to the dispatcher on the radio.

[293 Ga. 584]As the train neared the road, the engineer and the brakeman saw a loaded logging truck slowly approach the crossing. When the engineer realized that the truck was not stopping, he engaged the emergency brake, but the train was too close to the crossing to avoid a crash. The train slammed into the center of the truck's log-filled trailer, killing the driver and wrapping the truck around the front of the locomotive. The logs in the trailer whipped into the train, crushing inward part of the front right side of the locomotive cabin. The train's first four cars derailed and ground to a halt.

In the moments before the collision, Zeagler panicked. While the engineer dropped down and braced for the impact, both Zeagler and the brakeman ran toward the cabin's back door in an attempt to jump out of the train, but neither employee made it before the train slammed into the truck. Because Zeagler was upright and moving, rather than braced for impact, the force of the collision threw him toward the back of the cabin. He tripped over the brakeman, who had fallen down, struck his lower back on the corner of the brakeman's equipment case (“grip”), and fell to the floor. As the train derailed, Zeagler bounced up and down on the floor, striking his tailbone three or four times. He sustained injuries in the crash that resulted in chronic back pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. He has not returned to work for Norfolk Southern.

This was not the first grade-crossing accident Zeagler had been in, nor are such accidents a rarity for Norfolk Southern or other railroad companies. According to Norfolk Southern's records, the company's trains were involved in about 2,500 grade-crossing collisions between 2003 and 2007—an average of more than one per day—and employees were frequently injured in those collisions. Despite the frequency of these accidents, Norfolk Southern provided no rules or instructions to Zeagler and other employees pertaining to such collisions.

(c) On June 27, 2008, Zeagler filed a complaint in the Superior Court of Bibb County, alleging negligence claims against Norfolk Southern under FELA. 1 Zeagler alleged that Norfolk Southern had negligently required him to work on a locomotive without ever training him on how to protect himself in the event of a grade-crossing collision.2 Norfolk Southern moved for summary judgment, arguing, [293 Ga. 585]among other things, that the railroad had no duty to provide that kind of training and that there was no causal connection between the lack of training and Zeagler's injuries. Zeagler responded by citing, among other things, affidavits and deposition testimony from his three expert witnesses; Norfolk Southern did not challenge the qualifications of these witnesses or the admissibility of their testimony.

First, John Ambrose, a retired Norfolk Southern trainmaster 3 who had investigated some 75 grade-crossing collisions, testified that Norfolk Southern should have designed an employee-training program to maximize safety in crossing collisions. Ambrose explained that, in nearly every crossing collision, it is safer for the crew to stay in the locomotive cabin's interior rather than try to leap out. Thus, Ambrose concluded, with

[748 S.E.2d 851]

proper training, Zeagler would not have attempted to jump from the train before the collision. Instead, he would have braced for the impact, staying in his seat and bending down below window level, and that would have prevented him from striking his lower back on the brakeman's grip and then repeatedly bouncing on his tailbone. Second, Dr. Marc Wilson, an ergonomist, testified that training for emergency procedures reduces panic in actual emergencies. Dr. Wilson also concluded that if Zeagler had been properly trained in collision safety, he would not have attempted to flee but instead...

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28 practice notes
  • Diehl v. CSX Transp., Inc., Case No. 3:18-cv-122
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. Western District of Pennsylvania
    • October 1, 2018
    ...Complaint alleges a failure to train employees generally. (See ECF No. 1-1 ¶ 36(d)-(f), (i)-(l ).) See Norfolk S. Ry. Co. v. Zeagler , 293 Ga. 582, 748 S.E.2d 846, 861 (2013) (recognizing that 49 C.F.R. Part 240 deals with qualifications of locomotive engineers). Defendant does not specific......
  • Fox v. Norfolk S. Corp., A17A0319
    • United States
    • United States Court of Appeals (Georgia)
    • June 23, 2017
    ...Art. VI, Cl. 2, which invalidates state laws that interfere with, or are contrary to, federal law." Norfolk Southern R. Co. v. Zeagler , 293 Ga. 582, 598 (3) (a), 748 S.E.2d 846 (2013) (citation and punctuation omitted). And under Georgia law, our Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction ov......
  • Sells v. CSX Transp., Inc., No. 1D13–4775.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • May 4, 2015
    ...the other three elements—breach of duty, foreseeability, and causation—are questions of fact for the jury. Norfolk S. Ry. Co. v. Zeagler, 293 Ga. 582, 748 S.E.2d 846, 851–52 (2013) (stating that the legal question of duty should be kept separate from the factual questions of breach, foresee......
  • Norfolk S. Ry. Co. v. Hartry, S19G0008
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Georgia
    • December 23, 2019
    ...laws and regulations in effect on October 16, 1970," 49 USC § 20103 (a), "which laws include FELA." Norfolk Southern R. Co. v. Zeagler , 293 Ga. 582, 598 (3), 748 S.E.2d 846 (2013). The Secretary of Transportation has delegated this authority to the FRA. See id. ; Henderson v. Nat. R. Passe......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
28 cases
  • Diehl v. CSX Transp., Inc., Case No. 3:18-cv-122
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. Western District of Pennsylvania
    • October 1, 2018
    ...Complaint alleges a failure to train employees generally. (See ECF No. 1-1 ¶ 36(d)-(f), (i)-(l ).) See Norfolk S. Ry. Co. v. Zeagler , 293 Ga. 582, 748 S.E.2d 846, 861 (2013) (recognizing that 49 C.F.R. Part 240 deals with qualifications of locomotive engineers). Defendant does not specific......
  • Fox v. Norfolk S. Corp., A17A0319
    • United States
    • United States Court of Appeals (Georgia)
    • June 23, 2017
    ...Art. VI, Cl. 2, which invalidates state laws that interfere with, or are contrary to, federal law." Norfolk Southern R. Co. v. Zeagler , 293 Ga. 582, 598 (3) (a), 748 S.E.2d 846 (2013) (citation and punctuation omitted). And under Georgia law, our Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction ov......
  • Sells v. CSX Transp., Inc., No. 1D13–4775.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • May 4, 2015
    ...the other three elements—breach of duty, foreseeability, and causation—are questions of fact for the jury. Norfolk S. Ry. Co. v. Zeagler, 293 Ga. 582, 748 S.E.2d 846, 851–52 (2013) (stating that the legal question of duty should be kept separate from the factual questions of breach, foresee......
  • Norfolk S. Ry. Co. v. Hartry, S19G0008
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Georgia
    • December 23, 2019
    ...laws and regulations in effect on October 16, 1970," 49 USC § 20103 (a), "which laws include FELA." Norfolk Southern R. Co. v. Zeagler , 293 Ga. 582, 598 (3), 748 S.E.2d 846 (2013). The Secretary of Transportation has delegated this authority to the FRA. See id. ; Henderson v. Nat. R. Passe......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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