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Petersen v. Union Pacific Railroad Co.

June 2, 2008

MARIE PETERSEN N/K/A MARIE CIMAGLIA, SPECIAL ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF JANE ANN MCGRATH, DECEASED, AND MOLLY MORGAN, DECEASED MINOR; JON PETERSEN AS NEXT FRIEND OF KATIE PETERSEN, A MINOR, STEVEN M. WALTERS AND GAYLA J. WALTERS, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
UNION PACIFIC RAILROAD COMPANY, A DELAWARE CORPORATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jeanne E. Scott, U.S. District Judge

OPINION

This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Union Pacific Railroad Company's (Union Pacific) Motion for Summary Judgment (d/e 283) (Motion). The Plaintiffs seek to recover for personal injuries and deaths that resulted from the collision (Collision) of an automobile and a Union Pacific freight train at the Cisco Steel Road grade crossing (Crossing) in Carlinville, Macoupin County, Illinois. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion is allowed in part. Union Pacific has requested oral argument on the Motion. The request is denied because the Court has determined that oral argument is not necessary. Issues of fact exist regarding whether:

(1) the warning lights and warning bells at the Crossing (Warning System) activated at the time of the Collision; (2) the Warning System was malfunctioning, due to a problem defined in the federal regulations as Activation Failures, and whether Union Pacific had a duty under federal regulations to take additional steps to warn automotive traffic of oncoming trains at the Crossing. The conflicting evidence on these points preclude summary judgment. Union Pacific is also entitled to partial summary judgment because no issues of fact exist with respect to the Plaintiffs' other theories of negligence. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(d)(1).

STATEMENT OF FACTS

The Crossing is a grade crossing in Carlinville, Illinois, where a single Union Pacific railroad track crosses Cisco Steel Road. The Union Pacific track runs north and south, and Cisco Steel Road runs east and west. University Street runs parallel to the track on the east side of the track. The intersection of Cisco Steel Road and University Street is about 20 feet east of the Crossing. Motion, Exhibit B, Affidavit of David Brunnworth, attached Traffic Crash Reconstruction Report (Reconstruction Report), at 4.

The Warning System installed at the Crossing consisted of cross-buck warning signs with flashing warning lights and warning bells. The Warning System was designed so that the lights would flash and the bells would sound when a train approached the Crossing. The flashing lights were designed and placed in such a way that they could be seen by drivers on University Street as well as Cisco Steel Road. There were no gates.

In 1979, the United States Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) authorized the construction of the Warning System at the Crossing. Motion, Collective Exhibit H, Illinois Department of Transportation Record of Construction of Warning System (IDOT Record), at 165. In 1982, the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad entered into a contract with Illinois Department of Transportation to install the Warning System at the Crossing. In 1983, the Illinois Commerce Commission (Commission) reviewed the plans for the Warning System and authorized its construction. Installation was complete in August 1983. Ninety percent of the cost of the construction system was reimbursed with federal funds from the FHWA. IDOT Record, at 1. Thereafter, Union Pacific acquired the track and the Warning System. In 2004, Union Pacific operated the Warning System at the Crossing.

The Collision occurred on July 22, 2004, some time between 6:03 p.m. and 6:08 p.m. At that time, the sun was bright and near the horizon, the visibility was clear, and the pavement was dry. The view to the south down the track from the Crossing was unobstructed. Reconstruction Report), at 4.

A third party witness, Kimberly Maguire, gave a statement to law enforcement officials in which she said that she drove through the Crossing at approximately 6:00 p.m. that evening. She was traveling east on Cisco Steel Road. She saw a train approaching as she was in the Crossing on the track; however, she stated that the warning lights were not flashing, the bells were not sounding, and she could not hear the train's horn sounding. Response to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (d/e 292) (Response), Exhibit 9, Deposition of Kimberly Maguire, Deposition Exhibit 1, Maguire Statement; Motion, Exhibit A, Affidavit of Paul Bouldin, attached Macoupin County Sheriff's Dept. Report (Sheriff's Report), at 5. After she went through the Crossing, she turned onto University Street. As she turned onto University, she saw two vehicles traveling in the opposite direction pass her and head toward the Crossing. She looked back and did not see the warning lights flashing. Maguire Statement.

Shortly after 6:00 p.m. that day, Plaintiff Steven M. Walters, drove a 1999 Oldsmobile Silhouette minivan (Minivan), north on University Street, turned left onto Cisco Steel Road and traveled twenty feet west into the Crossing. Walters' wife, Gayla Walters, was in the front passenger seat. Jane Ann McGrath and Molly Morgan were in the two middle seats in the Minivan, and Katie Petersen was in the rear seat. Reconstruction Report, at 2-3.

Steven Walters testified at his deposition that the Crossing was rough so he slowed down to cross as smoothly as possible. Response, Exhibit 1, Deposition of Steven Walters (Walters Deposition), at 105. As Walters drove the Minivan into the Crossing, a northbound Union Pacific freight train (Train) was approaching the Crossing from the south. The Train was traveling approximately 43 miles per hour. Motion, at 6, Statement of Undisputed Facts, ¶ 37; Response, at 1, ¶ I.A. Facts Conceded to be Undisputed. The regulations authorized freight trains to travel at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour for the classification of the track at the Crossing.

Motion, Exhibit F, Manager's Report of Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Accident (track was class 4 track); 49 C.F.R. § 231.9. Passenger trains were authorized to travel up to 80 miles per hour through the Crossing. 49 C.F.R. § 213.9. The engineer on the Train started sounding the Train's horn at the whistle post and continued to sound the horn until the freight Train entered the Crossing. Motion, at 4, Statement of Undisputed Fact, ¶ 14; Response, at 1, ¶ I.A. Facts Conceded to be Undisputed.

Steven Walters turned his head to look both ways as he approached the Crossing. Walters Deposition, at 105. He did not see the Train until he was already on the track. He agreed in his deposition, however, that if he had looked to the south he would have seen the Train approaching. Walters Deposition, at 172. Once he saw the Train, it was too late; the Train collided with the Minivan. As a result of the Collision, Jane Anne McGrath and Molly Morgan were killed, and Steven M. Walters, Katie Petersen, and Gayla J. Walters were injured.

The Sheriff's Report of the Collision indicated that Steven Walters did not remember whether the Warning System lights were flashing before he entered the Crossing. Sheriff's Report, at 4. Walters testified at his deposition that the Warning System lights were not flashing before he entered the Crossing. Walters Deposition, at 129. The conductor and fireman on the Train, however, both testified in their depositions that the Warning System lights were flashing as the Train approached the Crossing. Motion, Exhibit C, Deposition of Keith Hall, at 48-50; and Exhibit D, Deposition of Phillip Kennedy, at 62-64.

The Warning System also contained an event data recorder (Event Recorder) that kept a record of its operations. The Event Recorder indicated that the Warning System lights and bells were activated for 30 seconds before the Train entered the Crossing. The Event Recorder also showed that no other train had gone through the Crossing for at least an hour before the Collision occurred. Motion, Exhibit K, Deposition of Harry Hibschman, at 111-12; and Exhibit E, Event Recorder Data download dated July 22, 2004, at 10:04 p.m.

Federal regulations required the Warning System to activate at least 20 seconds before a train entered the Crossing:

§ 234.225 Activation of warning system.

A highway-rail grade crossing warning system shall be maintained to activate in accordance with the design of the warning system, but in no event shall it provide less than 20 seconds warning time for the normal operation of through trains before the grade crossing is occupied by rail traffic.

49 C.F.R. § 234.225. The failure to activate as required by § 234.225 was considered an "Activation Failure". 49 C.F.R. § 234.225. If a warning system malfunctioned, and the malfunction involved an Activation Failure, the ...


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