Case of the Day – Thursday, August 31, 2017

WORKING BACKWARDS

When we were young, bright-eyed and newly-licensed lawyers, our heads full of three years of law school pap topped with a dollop of bar review study, we were befriended by a gnarled old litigator. He dictated his pleadings into one of the old belt-fed Dictaphones late at night, microphone in one hand and a bottle of Fairfax County bourbon in the other. But he sure knew how to litigate.

The second wisest thing he ever told us (the wisest being to drink Fairfax County, which, alas, is available no more) was that a good trial preparation began with writing the jury instructions and working backwards. Writing the instructions informed the trial attorney what the jury was going to be told it had to find in order for his client to prevail. Preparation then moved backwards, the next step being an outline of his closing argument. Only then, knowing what evidence he would need to have in the record in order to win, did the canny trial attorney assemble the evidence he had and determine what evidence he still needed to find.

It was good advice and great bourbon. Which brings us to Indiana, where they drink whatever Hoosiers drink, and they don’t always start at the end like they should.

For the readers’ sake, we’ll start at the beginning. Four years ago, in White County, Indiana (about half way between Chicago and Indianapolis), an Amtrak passenger train on CSX tracks collided with a farm tractor pulling a tank of anhydrous ammonia. Although the tank did not burst, some hoses full of the nasty stuff whipped around, broke the engineer’s window on the locomotive, and sprayed his hand with a small amount of the chemical.

The engineer, Bill Rucker, sued anyone he could find for his injuries, including the driver of the tractor, the farm that owned the tractor, CSX Transportation and Amtrak RDS Farms and the driver argued, among a myriad of other claims, that CSX was to blame for the accident, because it violated a state law the required it to keep trees and vegetation trimmed around crossings so that vehicle drivers could see oncoming trains.

Before an actual trial, the issues usually get cut down to size, chiefly through the use of summary judgment. Summary judgment on an issue is granted where there is no genuine issue of fact, and that one party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

The tractor driver said he usually stopped unless he could see no train was coming, and he does not know why he did not stop on that fateful day. He said the crossing was a difficult one because trees were “right next to the tracks” and because of the angle at which the tracks intersected the road, it was difficult to see a train approaching from the southeast.”

From this testimony, Bill the Engineer argued that CSX breached its duty to keep the railroad right-of-way clear of obstructions.

Indiana law at the time (but repealed last year) requires that a railroad ensure that a motorist has an unobstructed view for 1,500 feet in both directions along the railroad right-of-way “subject only to terrain elevations or depressions, track curvature, or permanent improvements.” The law obligated railroads to remove all foliage and obstructions on the right of way which might impair a motorist’s view of an oncoming train. The duty, however, extended only to the railroad’s right-of-way.

Our old-time litigator, would have written a jury instruction on the issue of whether CSX Transportation had violated the statute, and thus breached a duty, and he would have noted that his evidence had better include not proof of the obstructive foliage, but also proof that it was on CSX’s right-of-way. Sadly for Bill the Engineer, his lawyer was not the old-timer. The court found that the Farm had omitted a crucial piece of evidence, that the trees not trimmed were on CSX land.

Bill made the best argument he could make, that CSX had not provided testimony from one of its employees regarding the property boundary lines or right of way. Bill, however, had made the claim that no one could see the oncoming train, and it was thus he was the party with the duty to prove that the trees belonged to CSX.

With no evidence the trees were on CSX property, there was no proof of a duty to trim, or breach of that duty. Bill’s obstruction claim failed.

Our old friend would be swigging his whiskey and ranting into his Dictaphone: how could counsel have missed such an easy proof?”

Rucker v. RDS Farms, Inc., Case No. 2:15-CV-272-TLS (U.S. District Ct., N. D. Indiana, August 28, 2017): On the morning of June 12, 2013, Dave Allen drove an RDS Farms tractor across a CSX railroad crossing, pulling a disc harrow for tilling soil and an anhydrous ammonia nurse tank. At the same time, an Amtrak train being operated by Bill Rucker was approaching the crossing, Dave did not see or hear the train, and drove the tractor onto the crossing.

The lead locomotive struck the disc harrow at about 47 miles per hour, and the impact separated the anhydrous ammonia tank. The momentum of the locomotive carried it through the impact without causing an abrupt stop. The anhydrous ammonia tank was not ruptured, but the hoses were filled with ammonia at the time of impact, and one of the applicator hoses broke the engineer-side window of the locomotive. Rucker inhaled the anhydrous ammonia and it splattered on his right arm, shoulder, and head.

Allen said the crossing, at which the tracks cross the road from the southeast at an acute angle, is one at which it is difficult for a motorist to see because of trees that are “right next to the tracks.”

At the time, Ind. Code § 8-6-7.6-1.5 provided that “each railroad in the State of Indiana shall maintain each public crossing under its control in such a manner that the operator of any licensed motor vehicle has an unobstructed view for fifteen hundred (1,500) feet in both directions along the railroad right-of-way subject only to terrain elevations or depressions, track curvature, or permanent improvements.” The law only required railroads to remove obstructions on the right-of-way, and not “obstructions of view which are located off the railroad right-of-way.”

Rucker leveled the claim against CSX that it was liable because it had breached its duty under Indiana law to trim trees and vegetation to maintain unobstructed views. Bill relied on Dave’s testimony that the trees were right next to the tracks, but he offered no other evidence that the trees were located within the right-of-way.

CSX Transportation moved for summary judgment, arguing that Rucker has not met his burden to present admissible evidence from which a jury could find that the unidentified stand of trees in the southeast quadrant of the crossing were growing on CSX Transportation’s right of way. CSX Transportation argued it has met its summary judgment burden by showing that there is an absence of evidence to support Rucker’s claim. Rucker claimed he had shown a genuine issue of fact existed as to the location of the trees.

Held: CSX was granted summary judgment, and the tree obstruction claim was thrown out. The District Court said that once CSX pointed out that none of the evidence supported Rucker’s claim that CSX was responsible for the trees, it was incumbent on Rucker to dispute those assertions by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record” to establish the existence of a genuine, material, triable issue.

Rucker criticized CSX for not providing testimony from one of its employees regarding the location of the right of way, but the Court pointed out that a defendant moving for summary judgment need not produce evidence of its own. Instead, “when a plaintiff fails to produce evidence, the defendant is entitled to judgment.”

There is no doubt, the Court said, that “one of the basic elements of negligence is a breach of duty” and that Rucker “would bear the burden of proof on this point at trial.” Without a duty, there can be no breach, and no recovery for the plaintiff in negligence.

Rucker argued he had Dave Allen’s testimony that the trees were “right next to the tracks.” But, as the Court pointed out, Dave Allen has no personal knowledge of the property boundary lines or right of ways, nor did he further define the distance he correlated with “next to” or otherwise provide a more precise location. “Even without the precise definition,” the Court said, “the trees that Allen was referencing is probably not a mystery to the parties—they were in the southeast quadrant of the crossing in some proximity to the tracks. But that did not alleviate the need to determine who owned or controlled the property on which those trees were growing.”

Summary judgment is the moment in litigation where the non-moving party is required to show the court evidence on which a reasonable jury could rely to find in his favor. Despite CSX’s claim that the trees at issue were not on its right of way, Bill Rucker did not provide any evidence to identify the trees that he alleges created an obstruction, or to prove that they were on CSX’s right of way. “Without any credible proof upon which a jury could rely to conclude that CSX had a duty, breached that duty, and the breach caused the accident,” the Court said, “CSX Transportation is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

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