Ga. Supreme Court to hear Norfolk Southern collision appeal Monday

From staff reportsApril 10, 2013 

The Georgia Supreme Court will hear an appeal Monday from Norfolk Southern Railway involving a conductor who sued the railroad after he was injured in a train collision with a log truck.

In July 2007, William Zeagler was a conductor on a northbound Norfolk Southern train as it approached a crossing in Dodge County. As the train approached the crossing at about 35 mph, the train’s engineer sounded the horn, the engine bell was ringing and lights on the front of the locomotive were flashing on and off.

Zeagler, a Norfolk Southern employee for 33 years, was standing when the engineer and brakeman saw a log truck slowly approaching the crossing, according to a court summary of the case. When it became clear that the truck was not going to stop, the engineer applied the emergency brake, but it was too late to avoid a collision. The locomotive hit the center of the trailer that was hauling logs. The train derailed, and the driver of the truck was killed.

Zeagler tried to jump off the locomotive at one point, but before he could, the impact caused him to trip over his brakeman, hitting his lower back on the brakeman’s suitcase before he bounced up and down on his tailbone and lower back several times as the train derailed. Zeagler has not returned to work.

Here are the main arguments in the case, according to the court summary:

Zeagler sued Norfolk Southern in Bibb County Superior Court under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act. He claims the railroad was negligent and breached its duty to provide him a reasonably safe place to work by failing to train him in safety measures in the event of a collision at a crossing. He argued that his risk of injury would have been reduced if he had been trained to get below window level in a seated or braced position and had been instructed not to try to jump from the train.

The railroad asked the trial judge to grant summary judgment in its favor, without a jury trial. The railroad argued that it had no duty under federal law to provide such training and that there was no connection between the lack of training and Zeagler’s injuries.

The trial judge ruled in the railroad’s favor, concluding that Norfolk did not have a duty to provide the type of training that Zeagler proposed. The trial court also found there was no evidence that the training would have prevented him from being injured.

Zeagler appealed to the Court of Appeals, which reversed the trial court’s decision and ruled that a jury should have decided whether there was a breach of duty and whether the lack of training led to Zeagler’s injuries.

In appealing that decision to the state Supreme Court, attorneys for Norfolk Southern maintain that the Court of Appeals erred by reversing the Superior Court judge’s order.

By concluding that the railroad has a duty to take whatever measure may be “possible” to keep its employees safe, the Court of Appeals imposed a higher duty of “great care” rather than the duty of “reasonable care” required under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act. With its decision, “the Court of Appeals has become the only court in the nation to hold that a railroad has a duty to provide emergency training to its employees and can be held liable ... for failing to provide such training,” the attorneys argue in briefs to the court.

Train accidents at railroad crossings “present a wide variety of unpredictable circumstances, making it impractical to instruct crew members to react by making a predetermined response, which takes away their ability to take appropriate action as an accident unfolds before them,” the attorneys said.

No railroad companies in the country have emergency training programs for crossing collisions, they said. The reason is that no one response fits every accident. Instructing an employee to remain in his seat could be the correct response in one scenario and fatal in another.

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