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Gardner v. Southern Railway Systems

decided: April 22, 1982.


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Evansville Division. No. 80-C-17 -- Gene E. Brooks, Judge.

Before Cummings, Chief Judge, Posner, Circuit Judge, and Bartels, Senior District Judge.*fn*

Author: Per Curiam

Appellant, Mary Jean Gardner, personal representative of the estate of her late husband, Gregory Gardner, appeals from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Evansville Division (Brooks, J.), after a jury trial in favor of appellee, the Southern Railway Company.

Appellant raises two issues on appeal: (1) whether the district court erred by excluding appellant's evidence of a prior collision through which appellant sought to charge the Railway with notice of a dangerous condition at a railway intersection and (2) whether the district court erred in allowing appellee to amend its answer shortly before trial, denying that the deceased stopped his truck prior to crossing the railroad tracks. On cross-appeal, the Railway claims that the district court's denial of its Motion for Bill of Costs was an abuse of discretion. We affirm as to the issues raised by the appellant and reverse and remand for further proceedings as to the issue raised by the Railway.

This action arises out of a fatal collision involving the deceased, Gregory Gardner, which occurred at a railway crossing at approximately 9:45 A.M. on February 24, 1978 in Pike County, Indiana while deceased was driving an empty coal-hauling truck north in Pike County Road 100 West. While crossing the railroad's tracks at the junction of County Road 100 West, he was struck and killed by a westbound Southern Railway Company train, consisting of three engines, one car and a caboose.

In her complaint, filed February 4, 1980, appellant claimed that at the time of the accident, the Railway was negligent in failing to maintain its crossing so as to provide decedent with an unobstructed view of the Railway's tracks as required by Indiana Code 8-6-7.6-1. The testimony of the officer in charge of investigating the accident, ex-State Trooper Davis, established that at the time of the collision deceased did not have the sight distance required by the Indiana Code because of trees, brush and undergrowth which obstructed his view.

Sometime following the February 24, 1978 collision, through discovery proceedings, appellant discovered that on November 30, 1976, another fatal collision involving the Railway's train and a truck had occurred at the same crossing. An examination of photographs taken at the time of that collision revealed that the physical conditions at the time were essentially the same as those on February 24, 1978. The Indiana State Police Accident Report made of that prior accident disclosed that the accident occurred under substantially the same circumstances as the collision involving the deceased. However, on April 18, 1981, the Railway filed a Motion in Limine requesting the court to exclude all evidence of the prior collision. On April 15, 1981, appellant filed its Memorandum in Opposition to this Motion maintaining that by reason of the prior accident, the Railway was charged with notice of the extra-hazardous conditions at the crossing fifteen months before the collision involving the deceased. At its final pre-trial conference on June 12, 1981, the Court granted the Railway's Motion in Limine.

At trial, appellant offered to prove notice to the Railway of a dangerous and hazardous condition by other means such as photographs of the crossing taken on the day of the prior accident and the testimony of the two Indiana State Police Officers who investigated the prior accident. The photographs and the testimony of both officers with respect to their investigation of the collision were excluded. The Court did, however, permit one officer to testify (without being identified as a police officer) to the fact that he had been at the crossing prior to the subject collision and to relate what he had observed.

We refer now to the second issue raised by appellant. In its original answer, filed March 6, 1980, the Railway admitted that the deceased stopped his vehicle at the fatal intersection. Additionally, on April 15, 1980, the Railway filed a Request for Admissions in which it asked appellant to admit that the deceased had stopped his vehicle at the critical intersection. Nevertheless, on May 15, 1981, the final day of discovery, the Railway moved the court for leave to amend its answer to raise as a factual question the issue of whether or not the deceased had stopped his truck prior to attempting to cross the railroad tracks.

There was other evidence concerning the stop at the railroad crossing on the day of the collision. The Railway's employee, Gordon Byrd, obtained a tape-recorded statement from a witness, Randal Lewis, who was driving a vehicle a short distance behind the deceased at the time of the accident. At that time, Lewis said that he saw no taillights go on in the rear of the deceased's truck. This statement was used by the Railway to impeach Lewis at trial. The tape recording had never been turned over to appellant during discovery although it was submitted to the jury with appellant's consent.

Our final consideration is the Railway's cross-appeal. A Bill of Costs was filed by the Railway on July 9, 1981, wherein it requested that certain expenses amounting to Two Thousand Nine Hundred Fifty-one Dollars and Sixty-five Cents ($2,951.65) incurred by the Railway in connection with the trial be taxed to the appellant. Appellant filed her Objection to the demand for Taxation of Costs and Memorandum in Support of her Objections thereto, on July 15, 1981. The Railway's Reply to Plaintiff's Objection to Taxation of Costs was filed on July 24, 1981. No other pleadings were filed on this issue and no hearing was held. On August 3, 1981, the district court issued an order denying the Railway's motion for Bill of Costs. But the order contained no finding that the Railway had been guilty of any misconduct or that appellant was indigent. Accordingly, the Railway cross-appealed the denial of its Bill of Costs pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291.


We agree with appellant's interpretation of the law applicable to prior accident evidence in railroad collision cases. A railroad can be found negligent not only in the manner in which it operates its trains, but also because it failed to take adequate precautions at a grade crossing which it knew or should have known to be extra-hazardous. Stevens v. Norfolk & W. Ry. Co., 171 Ind.App. 334, 357 N.E.2d 1, 4 (1977); see also Menke v. Southern Railway Company, 603 F.2d 1281 (7th Cir. 1979). Evidence of prior accidents which occurred at that crossing under similar conditions may be admitted to show that the railroad had prior knowledge that a dangerous and hazardous condition existed.*fn1 New York Central Railroad Co. v. Sarich, 133 Ind.App. 516, 180 N.E.2d 388, 398 (Ind.App.Ct.1965); 5A Personal Injury § 1.05(1)(j), pp. 124-27. Moreover, as the Third Circuit and other circuits suggest, it is appropriate to relax the requirement of similar conditions when the offer of proof is to show notice of the dangerous character of the crossing rather than defendant's negligence. Evans v. Pennsylvania Railroad Co., 255 F.2d 205, 210 (3rd Cir. 1958); McCormick, Evidence (Horn Book Series), p. 352; compare McCormick v. Great Western Power Co., 214 Cal. 658, 8 P.2d 145, 81 ALR 678 (1932); City of Taylorville v. Stafford, 196 Ill. 288, 63 N.E. 624 (1902).

The controlling principle in cases of this type, however, appears in Rule 403 of the Federal ...

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