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Ziniti v. New England Central Railroad, Inc.

Supreme Court of Vermont

February 8, 2019

Matthew Ziniti
v.
New England Central Railroad, Inc.

          On Appeal from Superior Court, Chittenden Unit, Civil Division Robert A. Mello, J.

          John F. Evers of Shoup Evers & Green, Burlington, Robert L. Pottroff and Nathan L. Karlin of Pottroff & Karlin LLC, Manhattan, Kansas, Mark Parrish and Joshua Sanders of Boyd, Kenter, Thomas & Parrish, Independence, Missouri, and Thomas M. Barron, Quincy, Massachusetts, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Mark D. Oettinger and Andrew H. Montroll of Montroll, Backus & Oettinger, P.C., Burlington, and Michael B. Flynn, Lori A. Wirkus and Matthew M. Cianflone of Flynn Wirkus Young, P.C., Quincy, Massachusetts, for Defendant-Appellee.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson, Eaton and Carroll, JJ.

          ROBINSON, J.

         ¶ 1. Plaintiff, who sued defendant railroad after he was seriously injured in a train-car collision, appeals the trial court's partial summary judgment ruling and the ensuing jury verdict for defendant. Plaintiff argues that the trial court erred by: (1) granting defendant summary judgment precluding him from presenting evidence that defendant's failure to place a crossbuck[1] on the right side of the road at the site of the railroad crossing, or to take steps to ensure that an "advance warning" sign was present, caused or contributed to the collision; (2) denying a request for the jurors to view the crossing where the accident occurred; (3) denying his motion for a directed verdict on the railroad's negligence on account of its violation of a safety statute relating to maintenance of the railroad's right of way; and (4) denying his request for an instruction on the sudden emergency doctrine. We reject each of these arguments and, accordingly, affirm the judgment in favor of defendant.

         I. Facts

         ¶ 2. The parties stipulated to the following facts, which were read to the jury at trial. The collision that is the subject of this case occurred at a railroad grade crossing on Slaughterhouse Road in Northfield Falls, Vermont. Slaughterhouse Road is a Class IV town highway open to public use, but is not normally used by school buses, large commercial vehicles, or tractor-trailers. It is a dirt or gravel road that begins at Route 12, runs over the Dog River via a one-lane covered bridge, and then winds to the left uphill over the railroad track and past two homes before it comes to a dead end west of the crossing. There is no indication that Slaughterhouse Road is a dead-end road until notice of such is provided by a "DEAD END" sign located on the same post as and below the crossbuck sign at the railroad crossing.

         ¶ 3. A single, mainline north-south train track intersects Slaughterhouse Road at the crossing. Train traffic at the crossing has historically consisted of only four trains per day, but at the time of the collision an additional train per day ran over the crossing in either direction.

         ¶ 4. New England Central Railroad, Inc., ("NECR") owns the track and crossties for a distance of at least 1320 feet in either direction along the railway line from the crossing. Since 1995, NECR has maintained and controlled a right of way at the crossing that extends approximately fifty feet in each direction from the centerline of the track. The Town of Northfield plows and maintains the road on both sides of the crossing. Although the crossing is a public crossing, an employee of an NECR contractor incorrectly designated it as a private crossing on a Federal Railroad Administration inventory form submitted in October 2011.[2]

         ¶ 5. At the time of the 2011 collision in this case, a crossbuck sign was posted at the crossing on the left-hand side of Slaughterhouse Road from the perspective of motorists approaching from Route 12. The crossbuck sign is visible upon exiting the bridge, turning left, and starting up the hill. There is a rock outcropping on the right-hand side of the road just before the crossing, which limits an approaching driver's visibility of the track to the right. At some point, a motorist approaching the crossing from the direction of Route 12 clears the rock outcropping and is able to see a distance down the track to the right.[3] Slaughterhouse Road intersects the track at an angle. The crossing surface consists of wooden planks.

         ¶ 6. 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. 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. He was an avid runner who often jogged along the roadways near his apartment, including Cox Brook Road, which crossed the track about 1800 feet north of the Slaughterhouse Road crossing. Although he had never driven on Slaughterhouse Road, he knew that it branched off Route 12.

         ¶ 7. That afternoon, plaintiff was mapping out a new running route in his pickup truck, intending to follow Slaughterhouse Road to the point where he thought it connected with Cox Brook Road. Shortly before the collision, he turned from Route 12 onto Slaughterhouse Road and drove over the covered bridge. His truck windows were rolled up and he was listening to music through the truck's stereo system. 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 thirteen miles per hour to six miles per hour but did not stop in the last five seconds before impact.

         ¶ 8. 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 eleven 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.

         ¶ 9. The event-recorder download showed that the train's speed as it approached the Slaughterhouse Road crossing was thirty-four miles per hour. A crew member applied the train's emergency brake after observing plaintiff's vehicle, but he was unable to stop the train before it collided with plaintiff's truck on the track.

         ¶ 10. In March 2014, plaintiff filed a complaint against NECR and three of its employees[4] alleging, among other things, negligence in failing to give an adequate audible warning of the train's approach, to provide adequate sightlines for motorists to see an approaching train at the crossing, to inspect and repair an unsafe crossing, to report unsafe conditions at the crossing, and to install adequate warning devices at the crossing. Over the next several years, the parties retained experts and engaged in discovery. In January 2017, the trial court narrowed plaintiff's claims to some extent in a summary judgment ruling. After a multi-day jury trial on the remaining claims, the jury determined that NECR was not negligent and the trial court entered judgment for the railroad.

         ¶ 11. On appeal, plaintiff challenges: (1) the trial court's summary judgment ruling precluding him from arguing that defendant was liable on account of the absence of a crossbuck on the right side of the road and an advance warning sign; (2) the court's denial of a request for a jury view of the accident site; (3) the court's denial of his motion for a directed verdict finding NECR liable as a matter of law on account of its violation of a safety statute relating to maintenance of the railroad right of way; and (4) the court's denial of his request for an instruction on the sudden emergency doctrine. We consider each challenge in turn.

         II. Location of Crossbuck Warning Sign and Absence of Advance Warning Sign

         ¶ 12. In a January 2017 decision in response to the parties' cross-motions for partial summary judgment, the trial court granted defendants summary judgment on plaintiff's claim that NECR was negligent with respect to maintenance or operation of the horn. It also granted defendants summary judgment on any claim that the train was traveling at an excessive speed. The court denied defendants' motion for summary judgment with respect to plaintiff's claim that the railroad breached a duty to remove the rock outcropping and vegetation along the right of way, thereby leaving motorists with inadequate visibility of approaching trains. The court concluded that there was at least a disputed fact as to whether NECR breached its duty of care by failing to remove vegetation or the rock outcropping.

         ¶ 13. The court also denied summary judgment to both plaintiff and defendants with respect to plaintiff's claim that the visible warning device present at the time of the crossing-a single crossbuck sign on the left-hand side of the road-was inadequate to warn motorists of the crossing. The court ruled that there was at least a disputed fact as to whether NECR's failure to install certain additional warning devices, such as a stop sign, automated gates, flashing lights, an advance warning sign, or a cross-buck sign on the right was a breach of its duty of care. However, the court concluded with respect to certain of these warning devices-namely, a crossbuck on the right side of the road and an advance warning sign-that even if plaintiff established that the failure to place those particular warning devices was a breach of NECR's duty of care, he could not establish that those particular omissions caused or contributed to the collision. The court concluded that plaintiff could establish that other alleged breaches of the duty of care-such as the failure to place gates or flashing lights at the intersection, or the failure to remove vegetation or the rock outcropping-did cause or contribute to the collision, but precluded plaintiff from presenting evidence that defendant's failure to place a crossbuck on the right side of the road, or to take steps to ensure that an advance warning sign was present, contributed to the collision. Plaintiff appeals this ruling.

         ¶ 14. In reviewing plaintiff's appeal of this summary judgment ruling, we apply the same standard as the trial court; we will uphold the court's ruling if no genuine issue of material fact exists and NECR is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Ainsworth v. Chandler, 2014 VT 107, ¶ 8, 197 Vt. 541, 107 A.3d 905. Although we view the facts submitted in the pleadings and affidavits in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and we give that party the benefit of all reasonable doubts and inferences in determining whether there is a genuine issue of material fact, "the nonmovant bears the burden of submitting credible documentary evidence or affidavits sufficient to rebut the evidence of the moving party." Id. ΒΆΒΆ 3, 8 (quotation omitted). We conclude that defendant was entitled to summary judgment with respect to plaintiff's ...


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