Stephens v. CSX Transp., Inc.

Decision Date04 November 2015
Docket NumberAppellate Case No. 2013–000133.,No. 27587.,27587.
Citation781 S.E.2d 534,415 S.C. 182
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court
Parties Willie Homer STEPHENS, Guardian ad Litem for Lillian C., a minor, Petitioner, v. CSX TRANSPORTATION, INC. and South Carolina Department of Transportation, Respondents.

John Paul Detrick, John E. Parker, Grahame Ellison Holmes, Matthew Vernon Creech, all of Peters Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick, P.A., of Hampton; and Carl H. Jacobson, of Uricchio, Howe, Krell, Jacobson, Toporek, Theos & Keith, P.A., of Charleston, all for petitioner.

Ronald K. Wray, II, and Thomas Edward Vanderbloemen, both of Gallivan, White & Boyd, P.A., of Greenville; Jonathan P. Harmon, of McGuire Woods, L.L.P., of Richmond, VA; James W. Purcell of Fulcher Hagler, L.L.P., of Augusta, GA; Andrew F. Lindemann, of Davidson & Lindemann, P.A., of Columbia, and Peden B. McLeod, Sr., of McLeod, Fraser & Cone, L.L.C., of Walterboro, all for respondents.

Justice BEATTY.

This negligence action arose out of a collision involving a train and an automobile at a railroad crossing. Willie Homer Stephens ("Petitioner"), as Guardian ad Litem for his minor granddaughter who suffered a traumatic brain injury while a passenger in her mother's vehicle, filed suit against CSX Transportation, Inc. ("CSX") and the South Carolina Department of Transportation ("SCDOT"). Following a jury verdict in favor of the defendants, Petitioner appealed to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals affirmed, finding the trial judge did not err in admitting certain evidence, charging the jury, and in denying Petitioner's motions for a directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict ("JNOV"). Stephens v. CSX Transp., Inc., 400 S.C. 503, 735 S.E.2d 505 (Ct.App.2012). This Court granted Petitioner's request for a writ of certiorari to review the decision of the Court of Appeals. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for a new trial.

I. Factual / Procedural History

CSX maintains a railroad track in Hampton County, which passes through the town of Yemassee. At issue in this case is the passive-grade crossing at Hill Road near state Highway 68. The crossing has no active traffic-control devices such as lights or gates. Vehicle traffic is controlled by a stop sign, a stop line, and a cross-buck that is similar to a "Yield" sign as it is an X-shaped sign with the words "Railroad Crossing" in black lettering.

On the afternoon of February 3, 2004, as Tonia Colvin drove down Hill Road towards Highway 68, a CSX train approached the crossing from her right. Colvin's boyfriend sat in the front passenger seat and her twelve-year-old daughter Lillian sat in the back seat on the right side. When Colvin reached the railroad crossing, she stopped at the stop sign and then pulled forward to the stop line. SCDOT had placed the stop sign at a distance of thirty-six feet and the stop line at a distance of 9.75 feet from the near rail of the railroad track. Colvin testified that she did not hear or see the train before she drove onto the track. She stated that she heard the train's horn when she drove onto the track. Colvin claimed she accelerated to get out of the way, but she could not cross the track before the train struck her vehicle.

Colvin, her boyfriend, and Lillian all sustained injuries in the accident. An emergency responder testified she smelled alcohol at the accident scene. While Colvin was being treated for her injuries at the emergency room, doctors ordered a test of Colvin's blood and urine to determine whether Colvin had alcohol and/or drugs in her system. Medical records revealed that Colvin had opiates in her system and had a blood alcohol content of .018%. Although Colvin denied being impaired at the time of accident, she admitted she consumed two wine coolers the morning of the accident and had taken Darvocet, a muscle relaxer, and cough syrup with codeine.

Lillian's injuries were the most severe as she suffered a traumatic brain injury that required her to be placed in a medically induced coma for approximately one month. After she awoke from the coma, Lillian received extensive physical, occupational, and speech therapy. However, at the time of trial, Lillian still suffered intellectual, behavioral, and physical impairments.

Petitioner instituted an action for negligence against CSX and SCDOT on behalf of Lillian. With respect to CSX, Petitioner primarily alleged that CSX was negligent in failing to sound the train's horn far enough in advance of the railroad crossing and failing to remove trees and other vegetation that obstructed Colvin's view of the railroad track. As to SCDOT, Petitioner alleged that SCDOT was negligent because it failed to properly inspect the railroad crossing and installed the stop sign and the stop line at improper locations.

At trial, Petitioner presented evidence that CSX, in 2000, started a program to improve sight distances for vehicles approaching its passive-grade crossings in South Carolina by removing vegetation at crossings. Several months before the accident, CSX's clear-cutting crew attempted to cut down a line of trees adjacent to the Hill Road crossing, but they were prevented from cutting the trees until a dispute with the purported landowner, Thomas Jackson, was resolved. At the time of the accident, the crossing had been partially cleared. Contrary to Colvin's testimony, other witnesses testified that the view was unobstructed for about 2,000 feet from the stop line at the crossing. Jackson also testified that he was unaware of any accidents at the crossing in forty years and he never had a problem with trees blocking his view down the railroad tracks.

Petitioner offered Dr. Kenneth Heathington as an expert who testified regarding the safety issues at the Hill Road crossing. While Dr. Heathington acknowledged that there were no reports of prior accidents at the crossing, he opined that CSX did not provide adequate sight distance for a motorist. Dr. Heathington further testified that the stop sign and stop line were placed at an improper distance. Ultimately, Dr. Heathington concluded that the accident would not have occurred had the defendants complied with the established standards of care. In contrast, SCDOT offered evidence that the crossing had been inspected on November 7, 2002, there was no obstruction at the time of the inspection, and the crossing met with the standards for the placement of stop signs and stop lines.

Petitioner also offered evidence that South Carolina law requires that a train's horn be sounded continuously from a distance of at least 1,500 feet from the road until the engine has crossed it.1 CSX's counsel admitted in his opening statement that the train's engineer did not begin sounding the train's horn at the proper time. The engineer testified that he "believed" he blew the horn on time; however, the train's event recorder revealed that he did not blow the horn until the engine was 1,161 feet from the crossing.

After CSX and SCDOT presented their evidence, Petitioner moved for a directed verdict as to both defendants. With respect to CSX, Petitioner argued that he was entitled to a directed verdict because there was no issue that CSX was "negligent [in] failing to cut the crossing" and "blow the horn as required by law." Petitioner conceded that there were "issues about proximate cause."

Following the denial of his motion, Petitioner presented rebuttal evidence, which included a stipulation with CSX that the data from the train's event recorder was accurate. Petitioner then rested his case without renewing his motion for a directed verdict.

After charging the jury, the judge submitted to the jury a verdict form that contained special interrogatories. The first question on the form asked the jury to determine whether CSX or SCDOT was negligent. The jury answered "NO" as to both defendants and, as a result, did not answer any of the remaining questions on the verdict form regarding proximate cause or damages.

Petitioner filed a timely post-trial motion in which he moved for JNOV, pursuant to Rule 50(b) of South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure,2 on the grounds the trial judge erred in faILING TO DIRECT A VERDICT in favor of Petitioner against CSX on the issue of negligence given CSX admittedly failed to: (1) sound the train's horn in accordance with section 58–15–910 of the South Carolina Code ; and (2) clear the subject railroad crossing in accordance with its own rules and regulations. Alternatively, Petitioner moved for a new trial on the grounds the trial judge erred in: (1) declining to admit certain evidence; (2) failing to charge the jury with Petitioner's proposed instructions; and (3) charging intervening or superseding cause and inapplicable South Carolina Code provisions. After the judge denied these motions, Petitioner appealed to the Court of Appeals.

In a divided opinion, the Court of Appeals affirmed.3 Stephens v. CSX Transp., Inc., 400 S.C. 503, 735 S.E.2d 505 (Ct.App.2012). The court unanimously affirmed the trial judge's denial of Petitioner's motions for directed verdict and JNOV on the ground the issue was not preserved for appellate review. Id. at 515–20, 735 S.E.2d at 512–14. The court found that Petitioner's failure to renew his directed verdict motion after he presented evidence in reply waived his right to move for JNOV. Id. at 520, 735 S.E.2d at 514.

The court, however, issued a divided opinion with respect to Petitioner's challenges to the trial judge's rulings involving the jury charge. iD. at 520–25, 735 S.E.2D at 514–17. iNitially, because the jury determined that neither CSX nor SCDOT breached its duty of reasonable care, the majority found it unnecessary to address any ruling on the jury charge "unless it relates to breach of CSX's and DOT's duty of reasonable care." Id. at 520, 735 S.E.2d at 514. The majority rejected each of Petitioner's arguments regarding the jury charge. Id. at 520–25, 735...

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