Driver ruled at fault for collision with train, $5M verdict overturned

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Mar 17, 2011


MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Legal Newsline) - The Alabama Supreme Court has remanded a case against Norfolk Southern railroad in which one of its trains collided with a tractor-trailer carrying logs, severely injuring the driver of the rig.

The Court, in its opinion filed Friday, reversed a nearly $5 million jury verdict awarding compensatory and punitive damages to Ronny P. Johnson, Kim Johnson, Rolison Trucking Company and Gail Rolison.

Norfolk Southern Railway Company and Norfolk Southern Corporation, collectively referred to as Norfolk Southern in the opinion, appealed the judgment to the Court.

On Feb. 14, 2005, Ronny Johnson approached the Walker Springs Road crossing in a tractor-trailer fully loaded with logs.

The log truck was owned by Gail Rolison, and Johnson was operating the truck as part of his employment with Rolison Trucking Company.

Johnson testified that he came to a complete stop with the front of the truck about two feet behind the crossbuck sign. Johnson said he shifted the transmission to first gear and was stopped for 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 about 200 feet south of the crossing.

Johnson said he couldn't 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. He then began to slowly pull forward.

The last thing Johnson remembered seeing, he said, was the lights on the train. The northbound train collided with his log truck, leaving him severely injured.

The state's high court reversed the judgment entered in favor of the plaintiffs on their negligence and wantonness claims against Norfolk Southern. It also reversed the judgment in favor of Johnson, Rolison and Rolison Trucking on Norfolk Southern's claims seeking recovery for damage to its property.

Justice Michael F. Bolin, who authored the Court's 56-page majority opinion, wrote that the evidence indicates that Johnson was familiar with the crossing -- he lived in the area of the crossing and traveled over it on a daily basis -- and that the crossing was active with trains traveling both northbound and southbound along the track at the crossing.

"Johnson also testified that he was aware that boxcars were parked on the sidetrack and that the boxcars could obstruct his view to the south of the track," Bolin wrote for the Court. "Accordingly, we conclude that Norfolk Southern established as a matter of law that Johnson was aware of the Walker Springs Road crossing and that he understood or should have understood the danger presented by the crossing."

The plaintiffs argued that the boxcars located on the sidetrack constituted a "special circumstance" that prevented Johnson from discovering the danger at the crossing, despite his keeping a proper lookout.

"The photographic evidence presented by Norfolk Southern demonstrates that had Johnson satisfied his continuing duty to keep a proper lookout as he pulled the log truck forward of the crossbuck he could have discovered the danger presented by the approaching train," the Court wrote. "Accordingly, we find that no special circumstances, as discussed in Ridgeway, supra, exist in this case and that any failure in this regard did not proximately cause the collision."

As for the negligence claims, the Court said it concluded that Johnson "failed to exercise reasonable care, i.e., that he failed to properly stop, look and listen, as required by law when he attempted to cross the Walker Springs Road crossing and that he was contributorily negligent as a matter of law.

"Accordingly, the trial court erred in denying Norfolk Southern's motion for JML (judgment as a matter of law) and in submitting the Johnson/Rolison plaintiffs' negligence claims to the jury."

Because Johnson's negligence in failing to "stop, look and listen" is treated as the sole proximate cause of Johnson's injuries, "any alleged wantonness on the part of Norfolk Southern could not have been the proximate cause of the accident, and Norfolk Southern was entitled to a JML on the wantonness claims," the Court continued.

And, again, because the Court determined that Johnson's negligence in failing to "stop, look and listen" before crossing the railroad track was the sole proximate cause of the accident, the judgment entered on the verdict in favor of Johnson, Rolison and Rolison Trucking on Norfolk Southern's property-damage claims must be reversed, it said.

Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb dissented.

She wrote, "For all the discussion of facts and law in the majority opinion, this case simply devolves to the Court's substituting its opinion of what the evidence showed for the jury's view, i.e., that Ronny P. Johnson's testimony as to what occurred, corroborated as it was by other witnesses at the scene of the accident, 'is belied by the... photographic evidence presented by Norfolk Southern.'"

The Court, Cobb said, also "improperly invades" the province of the jury when it proceeds to weigh and to discard the testimony "indicating that this photographic evidence did not accurately depict the circumstances of the crossing on the day of the accident."

"In this case, Johnson's testimony alone constitutes substantial evidence of his compliance with the duty to stop, look and listen. I do not believe that the reenactment photographs in this case, challenged as to accuracy as they were, are sufficient to overcome this standard or to permit this Court to substitute its view of the evidence for that of the jury's."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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