Ala. SC stands by reversal of $5M verdict

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Jul 12, 2011


MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Legal Newsline) - The Alabama Supreme Court has denied to rehear 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 original opinion filed March 11, reversed a nearly $5 million jury verdict awarding compensatory and punitive damages to Ronny P. Johnson, Kim Johnson, Rolison Trucking Company and Gail Rolison, and remanded the case to Clarke County Circuit Court.

The Court filed its modified opinion on Friday.

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. He 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.

In March, on appeal from the Norfolk Southern Railway Company and Norfolk Southern Corporation, the state's high court reversed the judgment entered in favor of the plaintiffs on their negligence and wantonness claims against the rail company.

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 indicated 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.

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.

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

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 in favor of Johnson, Rolison and Rolison Trucking on Norfolk Southern's property-damage claims also was reversed.

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

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