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Monday, October 14, 2019

Vermont court rules for railroad in suit over train/truck collision; Driver was listening to music and didn't hear whistle


By Gabriel Neves | Feb 21, 2019

MONTPELIER, Vt. (Legal Newsline) – A man who was injured after his vehicle collided with a train in 2011 has lost his appeal of a judgment in the railroad company's favor.

Justice Beth Robinson, on the bench of the Vermont Supreme Court, issued a 17-page ruling affirming the Superior Court, Chittenden Unit, Civil Division's decision in the lawsuit filed by Matthew Ziniti against New England Central Railroad Inc. (NECR).

The court affirmed summary judgment in favor of NECR, dismissing Ziniti's claims of error committed by the lower court. Ziniti alleged the Superior Court erred by denying a request for jurors to view the crossing, denying his motion for an instruction on the sudden emergency doctrine and other counts.

Ziniti sued NECR in 2014 on allegations of negligence by failing to give an adequate audible warning of the train’s approach while he was driving and other counts.

"Shortly after noon on the day of the collision, plaintiff left Norwich University, where he was a student, and traveled north on Route 12 toward the Town of Northfield," the ruling states. "At the time, he was living in a rented apartment just west of Route 12, not far from the Slaughterhouse Road crossing. Plaintiff knew that the track was active; he had heard the train whistles at various times as trains passed through."

While he was listening to music when driving his pickup truck, the ruling states Ziniti did not hear the train.

"As he drove over the covered bridge, he saw the hill, but he does not remember anything else beyond that point. An oncoming train struck his truck as he was crossing the track. According to the event-recorder data downloaded from plaintiff’s truck, the truck slowed down from 13 miles per hour to 6 miles per hour but did not stop in the last five seconds before impact," the ruling said.

"The train that struck plaintiff’s pickup truck was approximately 15.5 feet tall and painted bright red on its front. The train’s three crewmembers were riding in the lead locomotive. As the train approached the crossing, one of the crew members was blowing the train’s horn. According to the data downloaded from the locomotive’s event recorder, the horn was sounded for 11 seconds prior to impact. Plaintiff admits that the train crew properly sounded the train’s horn. The horn was loud enough to comply with federal regulations."

A jury found in 2017 that NECR was not negligent and the trial court entered judgment for the railroad.

In her ruling, Robinson dismissed Ziniti's arguments that the court erred in granting the summary judgment and denying some motions, stating that "because the jury did not reach the question of plaintiff’s comparative negligence, plaintiff cannot show prejudice resulting from omission of the instruction, even assuming that it should have been given."

Vermont Supreme Court case number 2018-086

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