Union Pacific to get new trial after $1.25 million verdict

Ann Maher Mar. 7, 2012, 7:58am



A $1.25 million plaintiff's verdict has been reversed at the Fifth District Appellate Court and remanded to Madison County for a new trial.

Justice James Donovan wrote that Circuit Judge Andreas Matoesian erred when he allowed the plaintiff to rely upon certain industry safety standards, but prohibited Union Pacific from showing that railroad safety standards are intended to address public crossings and are not binding at private crossings.

Justices Thomas Welch and James Wexstten concurred in the Rule 23 (non-precedential) order issued March 6.

The private crossing issue was challenged at length in the September 2010 trial, during which Matoesian had stated, "A crossing is a crossing."

"The trial court abused its discretion when it prohibited the Railroad from cross examining the plaintiffs' experts and from offering its own affirmative evidence to establish that the statutes, regulations, and rules are intended to address safety issues at public crossings and that they are not binding at private crossings," Donovan wrote.

"The Railroad should have been permitted to submit evidence and argument to show that it was not required to apply the safety standards and recommendations at private crossings."

The case had been brought by Misty Webb, the special administrator of her father, James Webb Jr.'s estate, and by Guy Webb, her uncle.

James Webb Jr. was a passenger in a truck driven by Guy Webb when the two men were hit by a train when they tried to cross Union Pacific tracks located in Iron County, Mo. in 2007.

James Webb Jr. died from his injuries.

Guy Webb, of Highland, survived but suffered massive head and other injuries.

Misty Webb filed suit against both the railroad and her uncle for wrongful death.

Guy Webb settled with his niece and eventually joined her suit on personal injury claims.

The plaintiffs contended that Union Pacific did not put up signs indicating its crews should blow a whistle at the crossing.

They claimed uncut vegetation obscured their view of the oncoming train.

Union Pacific argued at trial that the Webbs were familiar with the unpredictable train schedule and that the railroad was not obligated to put up the signs or blow a whistle because the crossing was private.

Misty Webb won $30,000.

The jury awarded Guy Webb $2.5 million in damages but reduced the award by half, finding that Guy Webb bore half the responsibility for the accident.

In its decision ordering a new trial, the appellate court also addressed other issues that may come up at retrial.

The Justices found the trial court did not abuse its discretion in barring evidence that Guy Webb had the drug "Ecstasy" in his system and that James Webb, Jr.'s blood-alcohol level was .135 at the time of the accident.

They also found that Matoesian did not err when he excluded a highway patrolman's causation opinion; when he allowed plaintiffs' experts to testify to opinions that were not identified in the plaintiffs' disclosure under Supreme Court Rule 213 and with jury instructions.

The Railroad had argued that the court gave inapplicable instructions, excluded necessary instructions, and included inconsistent instructions, and that as a cumulative result of the errors, the faulty instructions did not accurately reflect the applicable law, confused the jury, and deprived it of a fair trial.

"In this case, we find that the instructions, when considered as a whole, were sufficiently clear and fairly and accurately stated the applicable law," Donovan wrote. "There is no indication that the jury was confused or misled by the instructions."

Union Pacific also argued that Matoesian had erred by allowing the plaintiffs to question its witnesses about track work performed at the crossing after the accident and its vegetation control program.

"Here, we have considered the Railroad's objections to the testimony in general," Donovan wrote. "We have not undertaken consideration of specific excerpts of testimony. Upon remand, the trial court will have to determine whether control remains an issue. We do not find that the trial court abused its discretion in permitting some evidence on the issue of the Railroad's control over and maintenance of the subject crossing. We note that the Railroad could have requested that the court give a limiting instruction on the use of this evidence, and it did not."

Months after the verdict was reached, Matoesian denied Union Pacific's motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

But, Matoesian had granted the railroad's motion for $100,000 set-off from James Webb Jr.'s estate.

Eric and Jon Carlson represent Guy Webb.

John Simon and Amy Collignon Gunn represent Misty Webb and her father's estate.

Thomas Jones and Harlan Harla represent Union Pacific.

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Organizations in this Story

Union Pacific
1400 Douglas St
Omaha, NE 68179

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