inasmuch as the state Public Utility Commission has exclusive authority to design and construct railroad crossings, see 66 Pa.C.S.A. § 2702(a)&(c); National R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Com. of Pa. P.U.C., 665 F. Supp. 402, 403 (E.D.Pa.1987), National Freight was precluded from maintaining a defective railroad crossing design cause of action against SEPTA. Accordingly, in order to meet the similarity of conditions standard discussed supra, the prior accidents sought to be introduced would have to involve either the negligent operation of the signaling equipment or the negligent operation of the commuter train (to wit, excessive speed, inadequate lookout, or failure to properly brake).
The only materials presented to this Court concerning the prior accidents were the police reports of each of the three accidents and SEPTA's responses to National Freight's request for admissions. Based upon this material and the presentations of counsel, we concluded that the substantial dissimilarities between the present and earlier occurrences tipped the balance against admissibility in light of the confusion and unfair prejudice that would occur if the court admitted the evidence.
First, we note that none of the prior accidents, as reported, involved or implied any negligence in the operation of the signalling equipment at the River Road crossing. Indeed, the evidence on each occasion was that the signals were fully operational and operating prior to the tractor-trailer entering the crossing. Second, we note that in none of the three accidents was there any indication whatsoever of inadequate lookout or failure to properly brake on the part of the train operator. Moreover, as to the November 12, 1985 and February 18, 1984 accidents, there is no indication of the rate of speed of the trains. In the accident of January 13, 1982, the only reference to the rate of speed of the train is reported as being between 20 and 25 mph (the rate of speed testified to be "safe" by plaintiff's expert). Third, we note that in marked contrast to plaintiff's allegation that there was an obstructed view of the train tracks, no such condition was indicated in reference to any of the previous collisions. Fourth, we note that the January 13, 1982 collision was dissimilar to the present collision in that it involved a commuter train operating in a southbound direction. Finally, we note that the three prior accidents occurred over a span of forty five months and that the earliest collision occurred more than four years prior to the instant collision.
This Court further notes that National Freight, notwithstanding this Court's evidentiary ruling, was permitted and, in fact, did introduce expert testimony concerning its allegation that SEPTA negligently operated its commuter train at the River Road crossing. Thus, National Freight was able to introduce evidence supporting its theories of negligence without recourse to the prejudicial introduction of the prior accidents.
3. Improper Jury Instructions
National Freight alleges that this Court erred in instructing the jury that the duty of a railroad, such as SEPTA, at its crossings is to exercise ordinary care under the totality of the circumstances. Moreover, National Freight contends that the Court erred in instructing the jury that a motorist approaching a railroad crossing has a duty to stop, look and listen before and while proceeding across the crossing.
The duty of a railroad in Pennsylvania is to exercise ordinary care at a crossing by adopting a reasonably safe and effective method, commensurate with the dangers of a particular crossing, of warning travelers of the approach of the train. McGlinchey v. Baker, 356 F. Supp. 1134, 1142 (E.D. Pa. 1973) citing 31 P.L.E. Railroads § 163. Based on this law, the Court instructed the jury that SEPTA had a duty to exercise ordinary care viewed in the light of all the surrounding circumstances as shown by the evidence in this case. See R. Meyer, Pa. Vehicle Negligence § 9.17.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in Fallon v. Penn Central Transp. Co., 444 Pa. 148, 279 A.2d 164 (1971), decided prior to McGlinchey, suggested that a railroad may have a special duty of care towards motorists approaching an unguarded crossing with a dangerously limited view of the railroad tracks. In Fallon, the driver of the vehicle was struck by a train at an unguarded crossing with a dangerously limited view (stated to be a "few feet") of the railroad tracks. Thus, the only possible warning available to the motorist at the Fallon crossing was the sounding of the train whistle. The Fallon court upheld the jury verdict for the driver based on evidence that the train, in fact, failed to sound its whistle.
None of the dispositive factors in Fallon -- an unguarded crossing, a severely restricted view at the crossing, and the failure of the train to sound its whistle -- were present in the instant case. Testimony at trial indicated that the crossing was guarded by two sets of fully operational warning signals and that a motorist could gain an unobstructed view of the railroad tracks at the crossing. Moreover, plaintiff's own witness testified that the commuter train sounded its whistle a number of times prior to reaching the crossing. In McGlinchey v. Baker, Judge Becker, confronted with circumstances similar to the instant case, refused to charge, on the basis of Fallon, that the railroad had a special duty:
We do not believe that Fallon was intended to modify long-settled principles of grade crossing law, and the Fallon court gave no indication that it was doing so.
356 F. Supp. at 1143. We conclude that National Freight's request for a "special duty" instruction suggested as appropriate under limited circumstances in Fallon, was without merit in the instant case.
In Pennsylvania, a motorist must stop, look, and listen before entering a railroad crossing. Riesberg v. Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad, 407 Pa. 434, 180 A.2d 575 (1962); Buchecker v. Reading Co., 271 Pa. Super. 35, 412 A.2d 147 (1979). Accordingly, we instructed the jury that the tractor-trailer driver "must stop, must look, and must listen before proceeding into and across a railroad crossing." In addition, we instructed the jury that SEPTA had the burden of proving that National Freight's negligence, if any, was the proximate cause of the collision.
None of the limited special circumstances which certain Pennsylvania courts have suggested would permit modification of the stop, look, and listen rule were placed before the jury during trial. See e.g., Evans v. Reading Company, 242 Pa. Super. 209, 363 A.2d 1234, 1236 (1976) (sun and foliage preventing motorist from seeing the crossing); Johnson v. Pennsylvania Railroad Co., 399 Pa. 436, 160 A.2d 694 (1960) (lack of an unobstructed view and failure of train to sound whistle); Buchecker v. Reading Co., 412 A.2d at 153 (impossible to observe tracks from safe position); Fallon v. Penn-Central Transportation Co., 279 A.2d at 167 (unobstructed view possible only by placing vehicle into swath of oncoming train and failure of train to sound whistle). As the court noted in Johnson v. Pennsylvania Railroad Co., only the existence of these very limited circumstances warrant a modification of the stop, look and listen rule:
It will thus be seen that the law recognizes that physical conditions at or near the railroad crossing may so mask the crossing itself that a traveller may not be held to the same measure of care which he is bound to exercise when he has a clear and unobstructed view for a (significant) distance and time to be properly informed of the danger ahead.