Jurors award more than $2.5 million in Union Pacific train-truck case; Award reduced by half

Amelia Flood Sep. 17, 2010, 12:57pm


A Madison County jury on Friday awarded more than $2.5 million in total damages to two plaintiffs in a combined wrongful death and personal injury case against Union Pacific Railroad. However, the larger award was reduced by half.

Jurors heard closing arguments in the case Friday morning.

Deliberations began just before 1:15 p.m.

The verdict for the plaintiffs in the case was returned at 5:30 p.m. and entered shortly after.

Plaintiff Misty Webb was awarded $30,000 on behalf of her father's estate.

Her uncle, Guy Webb, was awarded $2.5 million in total damages.

That amount was reduced by half as the jury found Guy Webb shared 50 percent of the blame for the 2007 accident at issue.

While attorneys for the Webbs argued that the jurors needed to give the family justice in the suit, attorneys for the defense pointed to Guy Webb's conduct as the cause.

Misty Webb originally sued Union Pacific and her uncle as the special administrator of her father, James Webb Jr.'s estate. She sued under Missouri's Wrongful Death laws.

Guy Webb later settled with his niece and filed claims against the railroad

In the suits, the plaintiffs claimed that the railroad failed to cut overgrown trees and brush, did not maintain proper sightlines and did not sound a warning whistle as their train approached the crossing in Iron County, Mo.

The train collided with Guy Webb's truck.

James Webb Jr. was a passenger in the truck and died from his injuries.

His brother suffered massive head and other injuries.

The railroad has argued that Guy Webb ran the stop sign immediately before stopping on the train tracks and then accelerated into the on-coming train.

The railroad claims its train crews followed state and federal laws.

In his opening statement, John Simon, attorney for James Webb Jr.'s estate told jurors he could not see any room for debate what happened.

"This case is about what's right and what's wrong," Simon said. "It's not gray. It's not cloudy. It's very, very clear. They ignored this crossing."

Simon pointed to the company's own admission that the accident site was not part of its mowing program in Missouri.

He cited testimony that it would have cost the company $600 to have the site mowed and an additional $1,000 to put up signage directing its train engineers to blow warning whistles before coming to the crossing.

"This case is about Union Pacific's decision to risk people's lives because they didn't want to spend $600."

Simon said there was no question that the railroad had a duty to maintain the track site and keep its sight lines clear.

The Webb estate's attorney said the company simply ignored its responsibilities, creating a danger to drivers crossing the Union Pacific tracks.

"It's a matter of blind luck if you're going to get killed at his crossing," Simon said. "This is beyond negligence."

Simon urged the jury to find for his client and send a message to the railroad.

"In this society we value human life above everything else," he told jurors. "How does Union Pacific value human life? Union Pacific values human life at $600."

Attorney Jon Carlson, acting for Guy Webb, echoed Simon's statements, repeatedly telling jurors that the accident caused by the defendant took away his client's life as he knew it.

"The rule at this crossing should be you better hope nothing's coming," Carlson said. "You can't see and you can't hear because they don't believe in following the law. What did it cost the railroad to blow a horn? Zero. It cost Guy Webb his life as a normal, productive human being."

Testimony in the case recounted the severity of Guy Webb's injuries as well as lost wages estimated by a plaintiff's expert at more than $1 million.

"He's locked in a body that doesn't function with a mind that doesn't work as well anymore," Carlson said. "And that's forever. They had 50 years to get it right and Guy had three point eight seconds. Do you want to tell Mr. Webb that the railroad didn't kill his brother and maim him?"

Although neither plaintiffs' attorney named concrete dollar amounts, they told jurors that they believed the damages in the case totaled more than several million dollars.

Thomas Jones, speaking for the railroad, pointed to a video taken showing the accident that he claimed showed Guy Webb and not his client was blame.

He told jurors that while the train crew had followed the law, Guy Webb hadn't when he stopped his truck on the train tracks.

"That's why we expect people to stop," Jones said. "There wasn't a problem with the crossing."

Jones pointed to testimony that showed Guy Webb and his family were familiar with the crossing and the fact that trains made unscheduled runs over it.

Jones discounted the testimony of a plaintiff's expert on railroad safety, Charles Culver.

Culver, who testified Thursday, said that the Union Pacific train crew should have sounded a warning earlier and that the engineer should have known the crossing presented a danger a quarter mile out from it.

Jones told jurors that opinion was "ludicrous."

"Doesn't common sense tell you the emergency occurred when Mr. Webb pulled onto the tracks?" Jones asked.

Jones told jurors that the plaintiffs were basing their case on emotional arguments and paid experts.

"When somebody comes here before you and they raise their voice and yell and scream that doesn't change the facts of the case," Jones said. "It doesn't change the law."

Attorneys from both tables objected a number of times during both closing arguments.

The two tables had dueled throughout the week over the content of the case's testimony and other aspects of the trial.

The Webb estates is represented by John Simon and others.

Jon Carlson, Eric Carlson, and former Madison County Circuit Judge Nicholas Byron represent Guy Webb.

Jones and Harlan Harla represent the railroad.

Madison County Circuit Judge Andreas Matoesian presided.

The case is Madison case number 08-L-1139.

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Union Pacific
1400 Douglas St
Omaha, NE 68179

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