Union Pacific R. Co. v. Sharp

Decision Date09 October 1997
Docket NumberNo. 96-1096,96-1096
Citation330 Ark. 174,952 S.W.2d 658
PartiesUNION PACIFIC RAILROAD COMPANY, and T.P. Spoon, Appellants, v. Jonathan SHARP and Aristea Sharp, Appellees,
CourtArkansas Supreme Court

William H. Sutton, Frederick S. Ursery, Scott H. Tucker, Clifford W. Plunkett, Little Rock, for Appellants.

J.C. Deacon, D.P. Marshall, Jr., Jonesboro, for Appellees.

Henry C. Kinslow, El Dorado, amicus curiae brief of the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association.

Lewis E. Epley, Jr., Tim S. Parker, Eureka Springs, for Cross-Appellants Jonathan Sharp and Aristea Sharp.

IMBER, Justice.

This is a negligence action involving a collision at a railroad crossing in Marianna. The appellants, Union Pacific Railroad Company and T.P. Spoon ("the railroad"), appeal a jury verdict rendered against them. The appellees, Jonathan and Aristea Sharp ("Sharp"), cross-appeal the trial court's entry of partial summary judgment in favor of the railroad on the issue of whether the railroad placed adequate warning devices at the crossing. We reverse the jury verdict, and affirm the partial summary judgment.

On February 15, 1993, Jonathan Sharp was driving a van owned by his mother, Aristea Sharp, when he collided with a Union Pacific train at the Louisiana Street railroad crossing in Marianna. The accident occurred in the afternoon, and the streets were wet from an earlier rain. Union Pacific's train was being pulled by two locomotives. The lead locomotive was operated by engineer T.P. Spoon who was on the right side of the train and brakeman Steve Tyler who was on the left side of the train where the impact occurred. The second locomotive was unoccupied. The only warning device at the railroad crossing was a single crossbuck 1 which was installed in the early 1980's pursuant to a safety program funded by the federal government.

Sharp filed a negligence action against the railroad alleging that it failed to place adequate warning devices at the crossing, failed to maintain the warning devices, failed to properly sound audible warnings, and failed to keep a proper lookout for vehicles entering the crossing. 2 Prior to trial, the court granted the railroad partial summary judgment on the issue of whether it placed adequate warning devices at the crossing because it found that the claim was preempted by federal law. The case proceeded to trial on Sharp's remaining negligence theories.

At trial, Sharp admitted that he was aware of the railroad crossing because he had passed over it four or five times the day of the accident. Sharp, however, claimed that he did not know that a train was entering the crossing at the time of the accident because his view was obstructed, and the train failed to sound its audible warning devices. Sharp further explained that he applied his brakes when he saw the train approximately sixty-two feet from the crossing, but that he was unable to stop before the front end of his van collided with the left side of the train. In contrast, the train operators testified that they sounded the whistle in a series of two long, one short, and one long blasts, and that they were unable to see Sharp's vehicle prior to impact.

Direct Appeal
I. Sufficiency of the Evidence

For its first argument on appeal, the railroad asserts that the trial court erred when it denied its motion for a directed verdict on Sharp's negligence claim. Our standard of review of the denial of a motion for a directed verdict is whether the jury's verdict is supported by substantial evidence. Ouachita Wilderness Institute, Inc. v. Mergen, 329 Ark. 405, 947 S.W.2d 780 (1997); Balentine v. Sparkman, 327 Ark. 180, 937 S.W.2d 647 (1997). Substantial evidence is defined as "evidence of sufficient force and character to compel a conclusion one way or the other with reasonable certainty; it must force the mind to pass beyond suspicion or conjecture." Esry v. Carden, 328 Ark. 153, 942 S.W.2d 846 (1997). When determining the sufficiency of the evidence, we review the evidence and all reasonable inferences arising therefrom in the light most favorable to the party on whose behalf judgment was entered. Id. In such situations, the weight and value of testimony is a matter within the exclusive province of the jury. Id.

To establish a prima facie case of negligence, a plaintiff must show that damages were sustained, that the defendant breached the standard of care, and that the defendant's actions were the proximate cause of the damages. See Ouachita Wilderness supra; Southern Farm Bureau Casualty Ins. v. Allen, 326 Ark. 1023, 934 S.W.2d 527 (1996). The parties do not contest that Sharp suffered damages as a result of the collision. Hence, the relevant inquiry on appeal is whether Sharp presented substantial evidence that the railroad breached the standard of care, and that this breach was the proximate cause of his damages.

A. Breach of the Standard of Care

At trial, Sharp argued that the railroad was negligent in failing to keep a proper lookout and failing to properly sound its audible warnings. Because the jury rendered a general verdict of negligence, it is impossible to determine whether the jury found that the railroad was negligent in one or both respects. Hence, we must affirm if there is sufficient evidence to support either theory of negligence.

Sharp's first theory of negligence was that the railroad failed to maintain a proper lookout under Ark.Code Ann. § 23-12-907(a)(1) (1987) which states that:

It shall be the duty of all persons running trains in this state upon any railroad to keep a constant lookout for all persons, including licensees and trespassers, and property upon the track of any and all railroads.

During Sharp's case-in-chief, the train's engineer, T.P. Spoon, testified that he could not see Sharp's van, and that he did not know that the train had struck the van until the brakeman brought it to his attention. We find that from this testimony, a jury could have concluded that the railroad breached the standard of care by failing to keep a proper lookout for vehicles entering the Louisiana Street crossing. Because we find that Sharp presented substantial evidence that the railroad was negligent in failing to maintain a proper lookout, it is unnecessary to address whether he presented substantial evidence that the railroad was also negligent in failing to properly sound its audible warnings.

B. Proximate Causation

The railroad next argues that the trial court should have granted a directed verdict because there was insubstantial evidence that the railroad's negligence was the proximate cause of Sharp's injuries. We have previously defined proximate cause as "that which in a natural and continuous sequence, unbroken by any efficient intervening cause, produces the injury, and without which the result would not have occurred." Ouachita, supra; Craig v. Traylor, 323 Ark. 363, 915 S.W.2d 257 (1996). Proximate causation is usually an issue for the jury to decide, and when there is evidence to establish a causal connection between the negligence of the defendant and the damage, it is proper for the case to go to the jury. Ouachita, supra; Tyson Foods Inc. v. Adams, 326 Ark. 300, 930 S.W.2d 374 (1996); McGraw v. Weeks, 326 Ark. 285, 930 S.W.2d 365 (1996). In other words, proximate causation becomes a question of law only if reasonable minds could not differ. Ouachita, supra; Tyson, supra.

As mentioned previously, Sharp presented evidence that the railroad might have been negligent in failing to keep a proper lookout. The jury could have concluded that if the railroad had kept a proper lookout, it could have either stopped prior to colliding with Sharp's van or sounded earlier warnings to notify Sharp of the impending danger. The railroad argues that Archie Burnham's testimony unequivocally established that the train could not have stopped when it was first able to see Sharp's vehicle. We, however, have previously explained that the jury is not bound to accept the opinion testimony of experts as conclusive. Dixon Ticonderoga Co. v. Winburn Tile Mfg. Co., 324 Ark. 266, 920 S.W.2d 829 (1996); Burns v. State, 323 Ark. 206, 913 S.W.2d 789 (1996); Bowen v. State, 322 Ark. 483, 911 S.W.2d 555 (1996), cert. denied, 517 U.S. 1226, 116 S.Ct. 1861, 134 L.Ed.2d 960 (1996). Hence, we find that Sharp presented substantial evidence of a causal connection between his damages and the railroad's actions.

In reaching this conclusion, we are not unmindful of our prior decisions where we held that it was improper to give the lookout instruction where the evidence established that the train could not have stopped in time to avoid the collision. Northland Ins. Co. v. Union Pacific R.R., 309 Ark. 287, 830 S.W.2d 850 (1992); St. Louis Southwestern Ry. v. Evans, 254 Ark. 762, 497 S.W.2d 692 (1973). These cases, however, are distinguishable from the case at hand in that the appellants in both Northland and Evans contested the court's decision to give a jury instruction on one particular theory of negligence. Northland, supra; Evans, supra. Although the railroad also objected to the lookout instruction in this case, it has failed to contest this ruling on appeal. Instead, the railroad has merely asked us to determine whether there was substantial evidence to support the jury's general verdict of negligence which, as previously mentioned, could have been based upon the jury's finding that the train was negligent in failing to sound audible warnings, in failing to keep a proper lookout, or both. In other words, we are asked only to determine if there was any showing of proximate cause, and not whether the plaintiff established proximate cause of a particular theory of negligence.

For these reasons, we find that Sharp presented substantial evidence that the railroad breached its standard of care, and that this breach was the proximate cause of Sharp's injuries. Accordingly, we affirm the trial court's decision to submit the case to the jury for resolution....

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