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Ammons v. Norfolk Southern Corporation

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

February 26, 2014

PHILLITA JILL AMMONS, Administrator of the Estate of Sophia Ammons, Plaintiff,


JOSEPH M. HOOD, Senior District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendants, Norfolk Southern Corporation and John Doe Defendant ("Defendants") [DE #42] and the Motion in Limine filed by Defendants, seeking to prevent Plaintiff, Phillita Jill Ammons, Administrator of the Estate of Sophia Ammons ("Plaintiff"), from introducing evidence regarding prior malfunctioning of the signals at the railroad crossing [DE # 25]. These motions are fully briefed and are ripe for review. The Court, having reviewed the record and being otherwise sufficiently advised, will grant Defendants' motion in limine and motion for summary judgment.

I. Factual Background

This case arose from an accident in which Sophia Ammons was driving eastbound on Bohon Road in Harrodsburg, Kentucky and drove directly into the side of a Norfolk Southern train headed westbound through the Bohon Road Crossing. As described by Plaintiff, Ammons navigated a "hard left turn" of the road leading up to the crossing and then struck the side of the lead locomotive, spinning her car violently. Ammons was thrown out of the passenger window, striking her head on a metal communications control box, killing her instantly. Plaintiff, Ammons' estate, filed suit against Defendants in the Circuit Court of Mercer County, Kentucky. Defendants removed the action to federal court based on diversity jurisdiction.

Plaintiff's lawsuit alleges that the train's engineer failed to sound the train's horn with the required two long sounds, followed by a short sound and another long sound; that the flashing warning lights at the crossing were malfunctioning; and that Sophia's view down the track towards Harrodsburg was obscured by thick vegetation. However, in their motion for summary judgment, Defendants argue that the evidence shows the whistle was sounded and the flashing lights at the crossing were operating normally on the day of the accident, and that Plaintiff has failed to create a genuine issue of fact to the contrary. According to Defendants, the evidence is that Ammons disregarded the flashing red lights and the train's horn and drove into the side of the train, which had already occupied the crossing. Defendants further argue that there is no evidence vegetation was obstructing the signs or signals of the railroad and that, to the extent that vegetation on private property surrounding the crossing obstructed Ammons' view of the approaching train, had Ammons actually stopped at the flashing lights, as she was required to do, her visibility would have been unlimited.

II. Standard

"Under Rule 56(c) [of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure], summary judgment is proper if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, "this Court must determine whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.'" Patton v. Bearden, 8 F.3d 343, 346 (6th Cir. 1993) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986)). The evidence, all facts, and any inferences that may permissibly be drawn from the facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (quoting United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962)).

Once the moving party shows there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case, the nonmoving party must present "significant probative evidence" to demonstrate that "there is [more than] some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Moore v. Phillip Morris Cos., 8 F.3d 335, 339-40 (6th Cir. 1993). Conclusory allegations are not enough to allow a nonmoving party to withstand a motion for summary judgment. Id. at 343. "The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [nonmoving party's] position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [nonmoving party]." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. "If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Id. at 249-50 (citations omitted).

III. Analysis

Under Kentucky law, to recover against Defendants for negligence, Plaintiff must show "duty, breach of duty, and resulting injury." Webb v. Jessamine Cnty. Fiscal Court, 802 F.Supp.2d 870, 888 (E.D. Ky. 2011) (citations omitted). With respect to the respective duties of Ammons and Defendants, "[i]n general, the rights and duties of a railroad company and the traveling public in the use of grade crossings are mutual and reciprocal and each must exercise the degree of care commensurate with the danger, but trains have the right of way and all persons on the street or highway shall yield precedence to the trains." Ill. Cent. R.R. Co. v. Arms, 361 S.W.2d 506, 509 (Ky. 1962). The duties of a railroad company at a public crossing "are defined by statute, common law, and sometimes, by city ordinance." Allen v. Arnett, 525 S.W.2d 748, 750 (Ky. 1975). Under Kentucky common law, the railroad has a duty to "giv[e] adequate warning of the approach of a train, [to keep] a lookout ahead, and [to operate] the train at a speed commensurate with the care required under the circumstances." Ill. Cent. R.R. Co., 361 S.W.2d at 509. By Kentucky statute, a railroad company is required to provide each locomotive engine running over its lines with a bell and whistle, which shall be rung or sounded "at a distance of at least fifty (50) rods from the place where the track crosses upon the same level any highway or crossing where a signboard is required to be maintained, " and which shall be rung or "sounded continuously or alternately until the engine has reached the highway or crossing[, ]" except at night, if regulated by ordinance. KRS 277.190.

Operators of motor vehicles also have certain duties when approaching and crossing a railroad track. "The duty imposed upon every man to exercise ordinary care for his own safety requires that in approaching a railroad track, he must use his senses in a way that ordinarily prudent persons would do under similar circumstances, in order to determine whether it is safe to cross the track at that time." Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Ry. Co. v. Stagner, 205 S.W.2d 493, 494-495 (Ky. 1947). Thus, "[a] driver of an automobile whose view is obscured or whose hearing is impaired by any condition must exercise care commensurate with the factual situation and proceed with more caution than where he has an unobstructed view." Id. at 494 (citations omitted). In addition, under Kentucky statute, the operator of a vehicle is required to "stop and remain standing at a railroad grade crossing" when "[a] visible electric or mechanical signal device warns of the immediate approach of a railroad train, " or when "[a]n approaching train is visible and in hazardous proximity." KRS 189.560(1)(a), (1)(c).

Here, Plaintiff does not contend that the train was not under reasonable control or was not operating at a reasonable speed. Plaintiff also does not dispute that Ammons drove her car into the side of the lead locomotive of the train. Nor does Plaintiff dispute the conclusions of Defendants' expert, Kenneth R. Agent, that Ammons was traveling at approximately 35 miles per hour at the time of the collision; she did not slow as she approached the crossing; and examination of the rear filaments show that Ammons was braking when the impact occurred. Thus, the parties appear to agree that Ammons was not aware of the presence of the train until immediately before striking it in the crossing. Rather, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants failed to comply with the duty to sound the train's horn or whistle as it approached the crossing. Plaintiff also alleges that the flashing warning lights at the crossing were malfunctioning. However, Plaintiff has failed to present sufficient evidence on which a jury could reasonably find that the train's horn did not sound or that the flashing warning lights were not functioning.

A. Evidence Regarding the Train's Horn and the Flashing Warning Lights

In their motion for summary judgment, Defendants rely on testimony from the engineer, Tyrone Campbell, that he blew the horn as usual as the train was approaching the Bohon Road crossing and that he could see that the flashing lights at the crossing were functioning. The conductor, Shawn Chilcote, also testified that the train's horn was blown and that the crossing lights were functioning. Plaintiff attempts to discredit this testimony by pointing out that, from the train, a person would not be able to see the front of the lights that would have been facing Ammons as she approached the crossing. However, Chilcote testified that, although he could not see the red face of the light from his perspective, he could see the back sides of the bulbs that blink on the back side of the reflectors. Chilcote testified that he specifically recalled seeing the lights being on at the crossing on the day of the accident. Campbell similarly testified that he saw the lights flashing on both of the crossings on the day of the accident. Campbell also testified that he was positive that he was blowing the train's horn before he saw Ammons approach the intersection. Defendants also submit a sworn affidavit from Mary Anderson, an individual who lives near the Bohon Road crossing, in which she states that she heard the train whistle blow several times shortly after 9:00 a.m. on the day of the accident. She states she then heard a thump, which she thought was a car door slamming. Upon hearing the thump, she and her husband looked down to the crossing and saw that an accident had occurred.

With respect to the issue of whether the warning lights at the crossing were flashing prior to the accident, the only evidence Plaintiff has submitted that contradicts Defendants' evidence are affidavits stating that the crossing lights were not functioning on other occasions. Defendants have filed a motion in limine to exclude this evidence, relying on Ayoub v. National Railroad Passenger Corp., 76 F.3d 794 (6th Cir. 1996). In Ayoub, a driver, Ayoub, drove around functioning crossing gates, disregarded flashing warning signals, and drove into the path of a passenger train. Ayoub was killed. The plaintiff (the representative of Ayoub's estate) argued "that prior signal malfunctions at the crossing conditioned Ayoub to ignore the warning signals." Id. at 794-795. The district court awarded summary judgment to the defendants (the railroad company, train ...

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