Jury hears opening statements in truck-train wrongful death case
A combined wrongful death suit and personal injury suit against Union Pacific Railroad began in earnest Tuesday as jurors heard opening statements and the beginning of the plaintiffs' case.
Members of the plaintiff's family left the courtroom during part of attorney John Simon's opening statement.
Simon then played 10 seconds of a video taken by the front of the train that hit the truck driven by co-plaintiff Guy Webb three years ago. The incident took place in Iron County, Mo.
Guy Webb's brother, James Webb Jr., was killed in the collision and Guy Webb suffered massive injuries.
Guy Webb and his niece, Misty Webb, are suing Union Pacific for wrongful death and negligence counts.
Misty Webb is the administrator of her father's estate.
Her claims are brought under the Missouri Wrongful Death statute.
The plaintiffs' attorneys told jurors during Tuesday's opening statements that the railroad's personnel were instructed not to blow warning whistles and that they did not follow their own safety procedures to prevent the Aug. 23, 2007 accident.
Former Madison County Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron sat at plaintiffs' table on Tuesday, although the case file does not indicate what, if any, involvement Byron has in the suit.
The plaintiffs also claim that Union Pacific allowed plant life to obstruct sight lines and that it did nothing to make the track site safer.
The railroad argues that Guy Webb ran a stop sign placed at the crossing and that the tracks did not require additional safety measures.
In his opening statement, Simon stressed what he claimed were things Union Pacific did not do to prevent the accident.
"Ladies and gentlemen, Union Pacific was responsible for making this crossing safe," he said. "Union Pacific is going to tell you that it was the driver's fault. It's Guy Webb's fault because he should have stopped, looked and listened."
Simon told jurors it would have cost the defendant $200 to install a "whistle board," a sign telling the train's engineer to sound a warning whistle near the site.
Guy Webb's attorney, Jon Carlson, took up a similar refrain in his opening.
"It costs nothing to blow a whistle," Carlson said.
Carlson outlined the severity of Guy Webb's injuries including a collapsed lung and brain injuries.
"Guy Webb's life . . . ceased to exist," Carlson said of the accident's impact.
Carlson told jurors Guy Webb's medical bills total near $550,000, the result of a "totally needless accident."
Defense counsel Thomas Jones stressed that the question of who was responsible for the accident was not cut and dried.
"What this case is about is who is responsible for this accident," Jones said.
Jones also pointed to the video Simon had just shown, pointing to what he said were Guy Webb's errors.
"You can see it for yourself," Jones said. "He did not comply with what he was required to do when he drove onto those railroad tracks."
Jones said Guy Webb himself would testify that he had no trouble seeing the tracks and that he was familiar with the crossing.
Carlson and Simon objected several times during Jones' opening, particular about his characterization of the crossing as a "private crossing."
After initially overruling the first objections, Madison County Circuit Judge Andreas Matoesian sustained them.
The plaintiff's case opened at 11 a.m.
Simon read into evidence the affirmative answers filed by Union Pacific that admitted its engineer did not sound a warning and that it owned the tracks where the accident happened.
Civil engineering expert Dr. Kenneth Heathington of Knoxville, Tenn. then took the stand to round out the morning.
Heathington was to testify about the safety conditions at the accident site.
"All crossings can be considered hazardous," Heathington told jurors. "But some crossing are extremely hazardous."
Guy Webb had originally been named as a co-defendant in the case by his niece.
He settled the claims against him with James Webb Jr.'s estate earlier this year over Union Pacific's objections.
Guy Webb filed his counterclaim against the company in March 2009.
Misty Webb and the estate of James Webb Jr. are represented by John Simon and others.
Jon and Eric Carlson represent Guy Webb.
Thomas Jones and Harlan Harla represent Union Pacific.
The case is Madison case number 08-L-1139.
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