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Harris v. Norfolk Southern Rail Co. – Lack of Proximate Cause Proof Derails Train Injury Lawsuit

A woman seriously injured when a train ran off a section of damaged train tracks and into her workplace will have to endure a second trial after a federal appeals court ruled the lower court had not made a proper finding of proximate cause.

In Harris v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co., trial court granted summary judgment to plaintiff on the issue of defendant’s liability, and held a trial only on the issue of damages (denying her the right to seek punitive damages at the outset). Jurors awarded her nearly $3 million for her medical bills, lost wages and pain and suffering.

It had been established the rail company had breached its duty of care in failing to properly inspect and repair that section of track.

But on appeal, the rail company argued there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the breach of duty proximately caused plaintiff’s injury.

In legalese, proximate cause is an event that is sufficiently related to a legally recognizable injury so as to be considered the cause of that injury.

Port St. Lucie injury lawyers know that in order to prevail in any personal injury lawsuit, one needs to show a few key elements:

  • Defendant owed a duty of care to plaintiff;
  • Duty of care was breached;
  • Breach was proximate cause of plaintiff’s legally-recognized injuries.

In this case, plaintiff still likely has a strong chance of succeeding at court, but the defendant was intent on making sure she would have to fight for every last cent of her compensation.

According to court records, plaintiff was working on the second floor of a coal loading facility in West Virginia. The facility was located next to a set of railroad tracks. This was in July 2009.

Unbeknownst to anyone, a section of track about 40 feet from the building was badly corroded. It contained cracks between what’s known as the “rail head” and the “web.” The damage had occurred gradually over time. But that morning, it finally severed. As the train passed over that section of the track, a section of the rail head broke off from the web and numerous cars derailed, smashing into the loading facilities support beams. The building collapsed and plaintiff suffered severe physical and mental injuries.

Investigators who later came to examine the track said in their many years of experience, this track was among the worst they’d ever seen.

Railroad records revealed the company had conducted an inspection in the weeks and months prior to the accident. Although some defects were noted, this major defect was apparently missed.

When plaintiff sued for damages, trial court issued a summary judgment on the issue of whether the company was liable for plaintiff’s injuries. And many elements of liability were there, according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The rail company did owe a duty of care to plaintiff and that duty of care was proximately breached. Further, plaintiff had suffered injuries that were not only legally recognized but debilitating.

However, what plaintiff failed to show (and what the court did not demand she show) was that defendant’s breach caused her injuries.

This means plaintiff needs to show that had the railing been properly inspected and maintained, the incident likely would not have occurred and she would have been spared her injuries.

The case has been remanded for trial.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:

Harris v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co., April 30, 2015, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

More Blog Entries:

Florida Motorists Rarely Cited for Driving Too Close to Bicycles, April 9, 2015, Port St. Lucie Injury Lawyer Blog

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