The South Carolina Supreme Court has granted another opportunity for plaintiff in Stephens v. CSX Transportation to pursue damages on behalf of his minor granddaughter following a horrific car-versus-train accident.
Defendants in the case, CSX Transportation and the South Carolina Department of Transportation, had prevailed at trial. But the problem, as identified by the state high court, was the trial judge gave an erroneous charge to jurors that may have prejudiced the plaintiff. The appeals court, which affirmed trial verdict, erred in restricting its analysis of that case to only jury charge issues that were related to the breach of duty of reasonable care.
Specifically, on the initial question of negligence, the judge gave a misleading charge to jurors, particularly as it pertained to a section wherein the train engineer admitted to failure to timely sound his horn, in accordance with state law. There was also an erroneous charge as it related to a driver’s duty to stop at railroad crossings. The judge cited the wrong statute – pertaining to drivers’ duty to stop at intersecting highways, than at railroads. The South Carolina Supreme Court noted the statutes cited were irrelevant and also conflict with SC Code 56-5-2715, which requires drivers to stop within 50 feet – but not less than 15 feet – of the nearest rail of the railroad.
The state supreme court found these errors, taken together, could have impacted the jury reaching a conclusion that plaintiff’s daughter – driver of the vehicle in which his granddaughter was severely injured – was more at-fault for the collision than either the train company or the state department of transportation. The court reversed and remanded the case for a new trial.
According to court records, the girl, then just 12, was in the rear passenger seat of her mother’s vehicle. Her mother’s boyfriend was in the front seat. The girl’s mother would later say she neither saw nor heard the train as she drove onto the track. She only saw the train once she was on the track, and by then, she couldn’t get off fast enough. She, her boyfriend and her daughter were injured. Her daughter suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Officials later determined the mother was under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.
However, it’s also true that all trains in South Carolina have to begin blowing their horn no closer than 1,500 feet from the road. In this case, the train’s event recorder showed the horn didn’t start blowing until 1,161 feet to the approach. Attorneys for plaintiff would further argue the train company was negligent in failing to remove vegetation and trees at the crossing, preventing the driver from clearly seeing the approaching train – even though she had stopped at the stop sign, located 36 feet from the tracks.
State DOT was also named as defendant in the personal injury lawsuit because plaintiff alleges the state failed to properly inspect the crossing, and didn’t put a stop sign or the stop sign in the correct place.
As a result of the crash, the youngest victim had to be placed in a month-long, medically-induced coma that has required extensive speech, occupational and physical therapies. Still, her injuries will be lifelong, and include intellectual, physical and behavioral impairments.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Stephens v. CSX Transportation , Nov. 4, 2015, South Carolina Supreme Court
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