Norfolk Southern Ry. Co. v. Johnson

Decision Date08 July 2011
Docket Number1090011.
Citation75 So.3d 624
PartiesNORFOLK SOUTHERN RAILWAY COMPANY and Norfolk Southern Corporation v. Ronny P. JOHNSON et al.
CourtAlabama Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Crawford S. McGivaren, Jr., Steve A. Tucker, and John M. Graham of Cabaniss, Johnston, Gardner, Dumas & O'Neal, LLP, Birmingham; and Ronnie E. Keahey of Keahey Law Office, Grove Hill, for appellants.

William H. Webster and D. Mitchell Henry, and J. Bradley Ponder of Webster, Henry, Lyons, White, Bradwell & Black, P.C., Montgomery; J. Jefferson Utsey of Utsey & Utsey, Butler; Joseph C. McCorquodale III of McCorquodale & McCorquodale, Jackson; and J. Michael Comer of Patterson Comer, LLC, Northport, for appellees.

BOLIN, Justice.

Norfolk Southern Railway Company and Norfolk Southern Corporation (collectively “Norfolk Southern”) 1 appeal from a judgment entered on a jury verdict awarding compensatory and punitive damages to Ronny P. Johnson, Kim Johnson, Rolison Trucking Company, and Gail Rolison (collectively “the Johnson/Rolison plaintiffs) on the Johnson/Rolison plaintiffs' claims arising from a collision at a railroad crossing in Clarke County between a tractor-trailer rig owned by Gail Rolison and being operated by Ronny Johnson and a train being operated by Norfolk Southern. We reverse and remand.

Facts and Procedural History
I. The Crossing

The railroad-crossing collision that is the basis of this action occurred in Clarke County at a railroad crossing located at the intersection of Walker Springs Road and Norfolk Southern's main-line track between Mobile and Selma. Walker Springs Road is a two-lane paved road that basically runs east and west and is intersected by Norfolk Southern's main-line track that basically runs north and south between Mobile and Selma. The portion of track at the Walker Springs Road crossing includes a broad curve. The broad curve begins southeast of the intersection and runs generally in a northwesterly direction before turning back to the northeast north of the crossing. The main-line track intersects Walker Springs Road in the middle of the curve at approximately a 65–degree angle.

Located to the south of the Walker Springs Road crossing and adjacent to the main-line track on the west side is a sidetrack. The sidetrack parallels the main-line track along its curvature for a distance of 1,138 feet and then terminates 100 feet south of the crossing. The sidetrack was used by Norfolk for the periodic storage of boxcars necessary for servicing a local industry. Section 103(d) of Norfolk Southern's operating rules provides:

“Engines or cars left on any track must be properly secured, must clear crossings and crossing signal circuits. When practicable, equipment must be at least 100 feet from public or private crossings. Public crossings must not be obstructed unnecessarily.” Section 822 of the operating rules provides: “Unattended on-track equipment either on or off the rail must be secured, locked, and left clear of all tracks that are in service without blocking view from crossings.” Gary Utley, a division road foreman for Norfolk Southern responsible for supervising engineers, testified that section 103(d) imposes upon Norfolk Southern not only a duty to maintain boxcars at a distance of not less than 100 feet from a crossing, but also a duty not to place boxcars on a sidetrack in such a way as to impede a motorist's sight line at a crossing. Gary Wolf, Norfolk Southern's expert, testified that Norfolk Southern had a duty to maintain a “clearing sight distance” so that a motorist within between 15 and 50 feet of the track has a sight line of approximately 1,100 feet up and down the track. James Franklin, a district train master for Norfolk Southern, testified that Norfolk Southern employees are aware of the 100–foot requirement for cars left on a track but that he did not know if Norfolk Southern gave any direction to its employees regarding obstructed sight lines.

Norfolk Southern had located on both the east and west approach to the crossing on Walker Springs Road regulation railroad crossbuck signs—white, X-shaped signs with the words “Railroad Crossing” written on them. The signs were in good condition and plainly visible on the day of the accident. The crossbuck sign on the east approach to the track was located at 12 feet from the near rail while the crossbuck sign located on the west approach to the crossing was located at 24 feet from the near rail. According to Norfolk Southern's operating rules, the crossbuck sign should have been placed no further that 12 to 15 feet from the near rail.2 David Martin, a Norfolk Southern engineer and a member of its safety committee, testified that the Walker Springs Road crossing was a “bad crossing” and that the presence of boxcars on the sidetrack created a “trap” for the public and for Norfolk Southern personnel.

Gerry Faye Griffin lived near the Walker Springs Road crossing and was familiar with it because she had traveled over it “all [her] life.” Griffin described the crossing when the boxcars were present on the sidetrack as follows:

“When the boxcars were pulled onto that siding, all you could see was a line of cars all the way to the horizon. And it's a curve in the track there, so it makes it more difficult. When you pull up to that crossing to come across, you could not see until—you had to ease, ease, ease your car up so that you could peep around the end of the cars.... My vehicle would have to be so [close] that I could not even see the first rail of the track. I would have to be that close to the track. I would have to peep over to look around the ends of the cars.”

II. The Accident

Ronny P. Johnson lived a few miles east of the Walker Springs Road crossing and was very familiar with the crossing because he traveled over it on a daily basis. Johnson was aware that the crossing was active and that boxcars would frequently be parked on the sidetrack. Johnson testified that when a motorist would approach the Walker Springs Road crossing from the west “you couldn't see to the right (south) if boxcars were parked on the sidetrack. He stated that “you would have to be near about all the way up on the track before you could see down the track.”

On February 14, 2005, at approximately 4:15 p.m., Johnson approached the Walker Springs Road crossing from the west in a tractor-trailer rig fully loaded with logs. The log truck was owned by Gail Rolison, and Johnson was operating the log truck within the line and scope of his employment with Rolison Trucking Company. Johnson testified that he came to a complete stop with the front of the truck approximately two feet behind the crossbuck sign. Johnson stated that he shifted the transmission to first gear and was stopped for approximately three to four seconds. Johnson's view to the north was clear and unobstructed. However, 10 to 12 boxcars were parked on the sidetrack south of the crossing. The north end of the nearest boxcar to the crossing was approximately 200 feet south of the crossing.3 Johnson stated that he could not see around the boxcars to his right from the point at which he came to a stop behind the crossbuck sign. He testified that he looked to his left (north) and right (south) and listened “real good” but did not hear or see a train. Johnson then began to slowly pull forward. He testified as follows:

“Q. [Counsel for the Johnson/Rolison plaintiffs:] Now, when you started easing forward, which direction did you look?

“A. I was looking to my right.

Q. You looked to your right?

“A. Yes, sir.

“Q. Toward the boxcars. As you were easing forward, did you see a train?

“A. No, sir.

“Q. Did you hear a train?

“A. No, I didn't.

“Q. As you were easing forward, did you look in any other direction?

“A. Yes. I looked to my left.

“Q. And, again, why would you be looking to your left?

“A. Because trains use that track both ways.

Q. You have to look to the left. So you looked to the left?

“A. Yes.

“Q. Did you see a train?

“A. No, sir.

“Q. Did you hear a train?

“A. No, sir.

“Q. And you were continuing to ease forward. What happened next?

“A. I was easing forward, and I was looking to my left. Then I looked straight ahead. And when I looked back, I seen the lights on the train.

“Q. When you looked back to your right, you saw the lights on the train?

“A. Yes, sir.

“Q. The first time?

“A. Yes, sir.

“Q. At the time you saw the lights on the train, could you stop before you got on that railroad track?

“A. No, sir.

“Q. Could you speed up and get across that railroad track?

“A. No, sir.

“Q. You're in low gear, pulling a fully loaded log truck?

“A. That's right.

“Q. Were you helpless at that point to do anything?

“A. Yes, sir.

“Q. Now, the last thing you remember seeing was the lights on the train?

“A. Yes, sir.”

Johnson was severely injured when a northbound train collided with the log truck. The train impacted the log truck near where the trailer attaches to the tractor.

On cross-examination, Johnson testified as follows:

“Q. [Counsel for Norfolk Southern:] ... [Y]ou knew the boxcars were there where they were on the day of your accident before you got to the crossing that day? You had seen them there in the days immediately preceding your accident; is that right?

“A. Yes, it is.

“Q. So you knew they were there?

“A. Yes, I did.

“Q. And you knew whether or not they blocked your view and how much they had blocked your view, didn't you?

“A. Yes, I did.

“Q. Knowing that, Mr. Johnson, may I ask why you didn't stop with the front of your truck a little bit past the crossbuck sign if, when you stopped behind it, you could not see to the right down the track?

“A. I've been across that crossing numbers of times. And when you come to that track, you stop and look and listen. By the time I get to where I can peek around the corner of that boxcar, my truck—the nose of my truck would be up on that track.

“....

“Q. As you came up to the crossing and stopped behind the crossbuck, you...

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