Madison - St. Clair Record

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Union Pacific prevails in appeal involving '07 fatal accident; Two Madison County juries have decided case

By Ann Maher | Jul 12, 2016

Fifth District Appellate Court justices have affirmed a ruling in favor of Union Pacific Railroad involving a fatal collision at a private crossing in Iron County, Mo. in 2007.

A split decision reached last month upheld Madison County Circuit Judge Andreas Matoesian who denied a new trial for the surviving driver of a pickup truck, Guy Webb, who was found by a jury in 2014 to be 100 percent at fault for an accident which caused the death of his brother, James Webb, Jr.


The Rule 23 order states that Matoesian did not err in allowing jurors to consider evidence that standards and regulations for public crossings do not apply to private crossings, which was a significant point of contention between plaintiff and defense through the course of the litigation which has included two jury trials.

Before the second trial started, Matoesian agreed to disallow Union Pacific from arguing that federal or state statutes prohibit it from cutting back vegetation or blowing its horn at the crossing at issue.

But in opening arguments, plaintiff attorney Eric Carlson of Edwardsville, "made it clear to the jury that the evidence would show that while federal law and current industry standards were only applicable to public crossings, the Railroad's omissions ... would show that the Railroad adheres to standards of safety only where the government is there to force it to do so," the Rule 23 decision states.

Webb's first trial ended in his favor as jurors in 2010 awarded him $2.5 million against Union Pacific. That amount was reduced by half, as jurors then found Webb to be 50 percent comparatively at fault as driver in the accident.

Union Pacific appealed that judgment, and in 2012 the Fifth District reversed Matoeisan. The appellate court held that Matoesian erred by allowing the plaintiff to rely on certain industry safety standards, but prohibited Union Pacific from showing that those standards apply to public crossings, not private crossings. The second trial was ordered and held July 14-18, 2014.

After the second trial concluded, Carlson filed a motion for a judgment nothwithstanding the verdict, or in the alternative, a new trial. Matoesian denied the motion in October 2014 and appeal followed in November 2014.

The June 21 decision was authored by Justce James Moore with Justice Thomas Welch concurring. Justice Richard Goldenhersh dissented.

In addition to the finding on admission of evidence, Moore and Welch also concluded that Matoesian did not err in allowing the plaintiff's experts to testify that it was their opinion that Guy Webb's failure to stop at the stop sign at the crossing was the cause of the accident.

The justices further found the jury verdict finding Guy Webb 100 at fault was not against the manifest weight of the evidence.

Goldenhersh disagreed with the majority in allowing the evidence and argument that Union Pacific owed no duty to take certain safety precautions at the private crossing.

He found that Union Pacific elicited testimony which recited its legal conclusion that it owed no legal obligation to take certain safety precautionary measures at the crossing.

"It is well settled that an expert's testimony is inadmissible if it merely recites a legal conclusion," Goldenhersh wrote.

"Over the plaintiff's objection, the Railroad elicited testimony that it owed no duty under Missouri law to blow a whistle at the private crossing in question. Because the issue of whether the Railroad owed a duty at the crossing was a factual question for the jury to consider under Missouri law and the Railroad's position was contrary to the case, I find the Railroad's recitation of its legal conclusion that it owed no duty was substantially prejudicial to the plaintiff."

He also wrote that the majority ignored instructions given by the appellate court in the first appeal which violate the "law-of-the-case doctrine," which bars relitigation of an issue previously decided in the same case.

Goldenhersh wrote that in the first appeal, justices indicated the case was tried under a theory of Missouri common law negligence, and that Missouri courts have held that a railroad has a common law duty to use reasonable care to avoid injury at public and private crossings.

"Notwithstanding this court's prior ruling in this case regarding Missouri common law negligence, the trial court permitted the Railroad to introduce evidence and argument that it owed no duty at the crossing in question," he wrote. "In my opinion, the trial court abused its discretion in allowing the Railroad to present this evidence and argument, as it was in violation of the law-of-the-case doctrine."

An original lawsuit arising from the accident was filed by Misty Webb, daughter of James Webb, on behalf of his estate.

Webb's estate settled claims with Guy Webb's auto insurer for the policy limits; that settlement dismissed Union Pacific's contribution claims against Guy Webb.

The circuit court also had approved a settlement between James Webb's estate and Union Pacific, which then left Guy Webb's cross-claim against Union Pacific.

Belleville attorney Thomas E. Jones represented Union Pacific.

Madison County case number 08-L-1139.

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