Ulrich v. 319 Bragg Student Hous. Auburn, Al.

Decision Date17 September 2021
Docket Number3:20-cv-1018-RAH-SRW [WO]
PartiesMADISEN ULRICH, Plaintiff, v. 319 BRAGG STUDENT HOUSING AUBURN, AL LLC, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Alabama


“Stop look, and listen” has been the general rule in Alabama governing train collisions with pedestrians for over 100 years and has regularly served as a proximate causation hurdle for a plaintiff seeking redress against a railroad owner and operator. See Nashville, Chattanooga & St Louis Ry. v. Vincent, 66 So. 697, 698 (Ala. 1914); Hooks v. Huntsville Ry., Light & Power Co., 41 So. 273, 273 (Ala. 1906). That hurdle is implicated in this lawsuit brought by Plaintiff Madisen Ulrich, a college student at Auburn University, who was hit by a train while walking along railroad tracks on a clear, fall afternoon. Ulrich acknowledges that the relief she seeks from Defendant CSX Transportation, Inc. is contingent upon this Court's acceptance of a “novel theory” against a railroad company. This theory, however, finds no support under Alabama law and turns the general rule upside down. Accordingly, this Court concludes that Defendant CSX Transportation, Inc.'s summary judgment motion, which invokes the general rule, is due to be granted. Therefore, Ulrich's claims against that Defendant are dismissed.


The Court exercises subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1332 because all the parties to this action are citizens of different states and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000.


Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is proper “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Further, Fed. R. Civ P. 56(c) “mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party bears the initial burden of proving the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. If the movant meets this threshold, the nonmoving party must “go beyond the pleadings” to establish that there is a “genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (cleaned up).

On summary judgment, a court must construe the evidence and all reasonable inferences arising from it in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970); Turnes v. AmSouth Bank, N.A., 36 F.3d 1057, 1060 (11th Cir. 1994). Any factual disputes will thus be resolved in the nonmovant's favor, but only when sufficient competent evidence supports the nonmoving party's version of the disputed facts. See Pace v. Capobianco, 283 F.3d 1275, 1276, 1278 (11th Cir. 2002). However, “mere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are legally insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing Bald Mountain Park, Ltd. v. Oliver, 863 F.2d 1560, 1563 (11th Cir. 1989)).

A dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The nonmovant “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). Rather, that party must present “affirmative evidence” of material factual conflicts to defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 257. If the nonmovant's response relies on nothing more than conclusory allegations, the court must enter summary judgment for the movant. See Harris v. Ostrout, 65 F.3d 912, 916 (11th Cir. 1995).


On October 4, 2018, Ulrich was a 20-year-old student at Auburn University, living at an apartment complex known as 319 Bragg. The rear parking lot of 319 Bragg abutted railroad tracks owned and maintained by CSX. (Doc. 61 at 2-3.) To attend her classes, Ulrich had to cross over the tracks at least twice daily. (Doc. 85-1 at 3.)

On that tragic afternoon, Ulrich was returning to 319 Bragg from her classes. (Doc. 61 at 2, 13; Doc. 85-1; Doc. 85-20.) The weather was clear, and the line of sight up and down the tracks was unobstructed, except for the vehicles stopped at the grade crossing that were waiting to cross. (Doc. 85-23; Doc. 103-1; Doc. 104-1 at 3.)

Video of the accident shows that as a CSX train traveled down the tracks at approximately 38 mph (a speed well below the 60 mph limit), [1] Ulrich approached the marked grade crossing from the right as she walked down North Donahue Drive. (Doc. 69-1 at 5; Doc. 73-1; Doc. 103-1.) When she approached the grade crossing, the crossing gate was activated and down, thereby blocking vehicles and pedestrians from crossing over the tracks while the train approached. (Doc. 69-1 at 5; Doc. 103-1; Doc. 103-2; Doc. 104-1 at 3.) The mast-mounted crossing lights were activated and flashing (Doc. 69-1 at 5; Doc. 103-1; Doc. 103-2; Doc. 104-1 at 3), and the train's horn was sounding (Doc. 69-1 at 4).

Despite all these warnings, Ulrich proceeded to walk toward the grade crossing while also talking on her cellular phone. She then turned to her right within feet of the activated gate. (Doc. 61 at 13; Doc. 69-1 at 5, 61; Doc. 83-1 at 2; Doc. 85-20; Doc. 104-1 at 3.) From there, she walked off the grade crossing and onto the crushed granite right-of-way parallel with the tracks with her back to the approaching train. As she alleges in her Complaint, she was on her phone talking to her mother while attempting to cross CSX's tracks via her usual and customary path, as she had done hundreds of times before.” (Doc. 61 at 13.) Tragically, within feet of the grade crossing, Ulrich was struck by the train's pilot (sometimes called a cow catcher). Fortunately, she survived the accident.


Ulrich initially filed this lawsuit on September 25, 2020, in the Northern District of Illinois against CSX Transportation, Inc., 319 Bragg Student Housing Auburn, AL LLC, and Greystar Worldwide, LLC. (Doc. 1.) The case subsequently was transferred to this Court in the interests of justice under 28 U.S.C. § 1631 (2018). (Doc. 28.)

On the last day to amend the pleadings, Ulrich filed a First Amended Complaint but without seeking leave of court and without the consent of opposing counsel. (Doc. 54.) As applicable to CSX, the amendment added a claim for premises liability/negligence. (Doc. 54.) The amended complaint was stricken for failure to comply with Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2). (Doc. 55.)

Several days later, Ulrich filed a motion for leave to file the amended complaint. (Doc. 58.) The motion noted CSX's objection to the amended complaint to the extent it added a new claim for premises liability. The other defendants did not oppose the motion, but they reserved the opportunity to attack the amended complaint with any defenses that were apparent and applicable.

The Court ultimately granted Ulrich's motion, to which CSX then filed a motion to reconsider, arguing that Ulrich had failed to make any showing of good cause for filing the motion for leave after the amended pleading deadline. (Doc. 60; Doc. 63.) Before the Court could rule on the motion to reconsider, CSX filed a motion for summary judgment on all claims asserted against it, including the premises liability claim that remained the subject of CSX's motion to reconsider. (Doc. 67; Doc. 69; Doc. 73.) Since that time, both parties have confirmed that they want the Court to rule upon the merits of CSX's summary judgment motion before requiring the parties to engage in any further discovery in this case.[2]


Ulrich pursues two causes of action against CSX in her First Amended Complaint, which both focus on the same course of conduct.

Ulrich faults CSX as negligent and wanton for not taking more measures to eliminate the risk to pedestrians of being hit by trains at “trespassing hotspots, ” which are “unreasonably dangerous.” (Doc. 61 at 14, 21.) Therefore, Ulrich alleges that CSX bears an affirmative duty to either install a barrier alongside a crossing and parallel with the tracks or install a pedestrian overpass. (Doc. 61 at 14.) Either measure, according to Ulrich, would minimize the risk of getting hit by a train, especially for intoxicated or distracted pedestrians. However, even by Ulrich's own admission, her legal “theory of the case is novel” because it shifts responsibility for a train-pedestrian collision to the railroad owner-operator at a hotspot location. (Doc. 77 at 1.)

Importantly Ulrich does not fault the train operator for the operation of the train or CSX for the design of the train involved in the accident. In other words, Ulrich does not claim that the train was traveling too fast, that the operator should have applied his brakes sooner than he did, or that the operator failed to blow the train's horn timely or adequately. She also does not claim that the grade crossing was improperly maintained, such that Ulrich's vision or line of sight was obscured by overgrown vegetation or some other obstruction within CSX's control. Nor does she allege that a warning signal was inoperable or that the crossing was improperly marked. Instead, Ulrich's theory travels solely upon an allegation that CSX should have installed a barrier or overpass at a known hotspot to protect Ulrich as a distracted...

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