RICHMOND, Va. (Legal Newsline) – The Virginia Supreme Court has sent a wrongful death claim back its trial court, the Richmond City Circuit Court, in the case of a man struck by a train while wearing ear buds.
On March 9, the Virginia State Supreme Court remanded Gina Coutlakis' wrongful death claim against CSX Transportation in an opinion written by Justice Cleo E. Powell. Gina Coutlakis alleged that CSX Transportation is guilty of negligently causing the death of James Coutlakis, her husband, in 2013.
In her claim, Gina Coutlakis alleged that James Coutlakis was struck by a train while he was walking along train tracks owned by CSX Transportation. She also alleges that the train's conductor failed to avoid the fatal accident as he did not take action to warn James Coutlakis to keep him from being hit by the train, even though he had several hundred yards to react before the accident happened.
CSX Transportation and the other defendants responded by countering that even when viewed under the best possible circumstances, James Coutlakis' contributory negligence was evident in his death. They cited to the fact that he was walking alongside the train tracks listening to music while wearing ear buds that prevented him from hearing the oncoming train as evidence.
Initially, the circuit court agreed with the defendant's assertion that Gina Coutlakis did not have sufficient evidence to counter James Coutlakis' contributory negligence, which formed the reasoning behind the court's dismissal of the case.
The state Supreme Court disagreed with both the defendants and the circuit court.
In its analysis, the court found that the most pertinent example of the last chance doctrine that applies to this case refers to when an individual has negligently placed himself in a situation of peril from which he is physically able to remove himself and that he is either unconscious of his peril or the defendant is liable only if he saw the plaintiff and realized, or ought to have acknowledged the plaintiff’s peril in time to avert the accident by demonstrating reasonable care.
The court said that the last-chance doctrine is merely an application of a different principal of the law. A defendant’s negligence can be considered to be an acceptable intervening cause of an accident, which renders a plaintiff’s contributory negligence to be unlikely.
The court specifically cited Southern Ry. Co. v. Bailey Co. as being directly pertinent to the case in question as it relates the amount of caution that both the owner of the train tracks and the victim must demonstrate to be found liable. In this case, both groups are required to exercise reasonable caution or either group can be found to be negligent.
For this reason, the court ruled that James Coutlakis' negligence does not automatically absolve the defendants from their own negligence. And that the willful and wanton nature of his negligence is a question that reasonable individuals could disagree upon. A rational jury could conclude the last clear chance doctrine applies based upon the facts presented and and for this reason the court reversed the circuit court decision and remanded the case back to the trial court.