Union Pacific Train Collision Suit Partially Reversed by Court
On November 24, a three-judge Missouri appellate court partially reversed a judgment ruling in favor of Union Pacific Railroad Co. and two company employees. The lawsuit was filed by the mother of a victim of a tragic train-collision incident that resulted in permanent injuries.
The revival of the lawsuit, as per the court, was based on an existing factual dispute over whether or not the train operated its horn at a perceivable decibel level before closing-in on the crossing where the accident occurred.
The two employees named in the complaint were William Woodward, a conductor, and Richard Alsbury, an engineer, both employed by Union Pacific. Along with the railroad company, they were accused of causing permanent and egregious injuries to Krista Barnhart in 2015.
On April 11 of that year, Barnhart was driving in the morning hours along Mercer County’s Gate Place Road. The road met at the intersection with railroad tracks constructed by Union Pacific. A southbound Union Pacific freight train was approaching simultaneously as Barnhart’s car reached the crossing. Woodward and Alsbury were operating the train, traveling between 46 – 47.5 miles per hour. The crew, while running through the intersection, alleges it sounded the train’s horn for 19 seconds. However, the train ultimately collided with Barnhart’s car when she came upon the crossing. Both train crewmembers claimed they did not see Barhart’s car arrive at the intersection.
Alsbury engaged the emergency brake when alerted by Woodward. The collision left Barnhart with significant permanent injuries.
Judith Campbell, Barnhart’s mother, filed the suit against Alsbury, Woodward, and Union Pacific, alleging many claims against the defendants. Among the claims in the complaint were maintenance and constructional negligence of a dangerous crossing by Union Pacific, as well as failure to maintain or install adequate warning signals or devices. The suit also alleged that the railroad company’s employees operated the train at a dangerous speed, thereby failing to either control the vessel or provide the victim with appropriate warning signs per state and federal laws and regulations.
In June 2019, the defendants motioned for a partial summary of the judgment, asserting that state and federal laws preempted Campbell’s claims regarding the warning signal sufficiency and adequacy of the crossing point (as well as alleged inherent dangers).
In August 2019, Union Pacific motioned for partial summary judgment on all the remaining claims from the plaintiff. The company also filed motions for the exclusion of opinions of expert witnesses brought by Campbell.
The panel rejected all appellate arguments from Campbell, with the exception of her claim that Union Pacific and the named employees failed to provide the required audible warning signal to Barnhart.
The court stated that the railroad company failed to address whether or not the decibel level of the horn met the federal requirements on the day the accident occurred, or if its decibel level may have been a factor in the collision.
The panel stated, “Until Union Pacific established its right to judgment as a matter of law by setting forth uncontroverted facts demonstrating that the horn’s audibility complied with the regulation, Campbell had no burden to produce evidence to the contrary. Union Pacific failed to meet its burden.”
The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision to exclude the opinion of one five experts for the plaintiff.