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Lopez v. CSX Transportation, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 13, 2017

JONATHAN LOPEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
CSX TRANSPORTATION, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KIM R. GIBSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. Introduction

         Before the Court is Defendant's motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 44.) The issues have been fully briefed (see ECF Nos. 45, 46, 52, 53, 58) and the motion is ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, Defendant's motion will be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         Also before the Court is Defendant's motion to strike Plaintiff's request for summary judgment. (ECF No. 55.) Defendant's motion will be DENIED as moot.

         II. Jurisdiction

         The Court has subject matter jurisdiction over the instant action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1332 and 28 U.S.C. § 1441. Venue is proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1391.

         III. Background

         Plaintiff initiated this action by filing a complaint in the Court of Common Pleas of Cambria County, Pennsylvania, on November 3, 2014. (ECF No. 1.) Defendant removed the case to this Court on November 26, 2014. (Id.) This Court heard oral argument on Defendant's motion for summary judgment on February 9, 2017. (See ECF No. 48.)

         Before analyzing the complex legal issues involved in this case, the Court will briefly summarize the facts.

         a. The Accident

         At around 1:00 p.m. on January 18, 2013, Plaintiff approached the Ferndale Crossing in Cambria County, Pennsylvania ("the Crossing") on foot, walking north to south. (ECF No. 46 at 5.) It was a "clear and cold" day, and at 1:00 p.m. it was "daylight." (ECF No. 53 at 7.) Plaintiff lived near the Ferndale Crossing and was generally familiar with the area. (Id.) In fact, he had traversed the Ferndale Crossing on several prior occasions, on foot and by car. (Id.) However, Plaintiff had not previously encountered a train at the Crossing, and assumed that the crossing was essentially unused. (Id.) Unfortunately for Plaintiff, the Crossing was not unused.

         As Plaintiff walked towards the Crossing that cold, clear January afternoon, a train was also approaching the intersection, traveling eastbound on the Crossing's only track. (Id. at 8.) As Plaintiff stepped onto the Crossing, he was struck by the train. Plaintiff suffered serious injuries, and his lower left leg was amputated. (Id. at 23.)

         The Crossing itself had neither a bell (Id. at 13) nor a gate. (ECF No. 52 at 38.) However, the parties agree that several warnings existed to warn people that the train was about to enter the Crossing. First, approximately twenty-five seconds before the train entered the Crossing, automated warning lights at the Crossing activated, and flashed continuously until the collision. (ECF No. 46 at 31.) Second, as the train approached the Crossing, three lights on the lead engine unit were illuminated: the headlight was on and two lights below the headlight were flashing. (Id. at 11.) Third, the train sounded its horn approximately sixteen (16) seconds before it entered the Crossing, and issued several horn blasts.[1] (See Id. at 10; ECF No. 53 at 12.) Fourth, the train's bell was ringing. (ECF No. 53 at 13.)

         Vehicular traffic stopped to allow the train to pass. (Id. at 10.) However, while these warnings successfully alerted nearby motorists, Plaintiff was completely unaware of the approaching train.

         Plaintiff was "walking at a steady pace... with his head down, hood up, [and] cell phone in hand." (Id.) Plaintiff was listening to music on his cell phone (ECF No. 46-5 at 97) without earbuds (Id. at 98) by holding his phone up to his ear on the outside of his hood. (Id. at 101.) Plaintiff never heard the train's horn or bell. (Id. at 126.) Plaintiff never looked up at all as he approached the Crossing (Id. at 101), and did not notice that vehicular traffic had stopped. (Id.) Plaintiff never looked to see if a train was approaching (Id.), and never looked up at the warning lights. (Id.)

         Three crew members were aboard the train at the time of the accident: Engineer Richard Spicola, Conductor Jared Rhodes, and Jack Churby.[2] The parties do not dispute that Conductor Rhodes activated the emergency brake sometime before the collision with Plaintiff. (See ECF No. 53 at 20.) Defendant claims, and Plaintiff does not present any evidence to dispute, that the emergency brake had already been applied before Plaintiff stepped onto the track. (See ECF No. 46 at 15.) However, the parties dispute how long before impact the brake was applied.

         b. Train Speed

         The parties do not dispute that the train was equipped with an event recorder which measured train speed, and that the event recorder data indicates that the train was travelling between 11.3 and 11.6 miles per hour in the seconds before the collision. (See Event Recorder Data, ECF No. 46-2 at 58.) Additionally, the parties do not dispute that an automatic signaling system, which measures speed based on voltage and is independent of the event recorder, measured the train's speed as 11 miles per hour when the train was approximately 79 feet from the center of the Crossing. (See ECF No. 53 at 21.) The parties do not dispute that the federally-mandated speed limit for the track was 10 miles per hour. (See ECF No. 44 at 15.)

         c. The 2007 Crossing Update

         It is undisputed that federal funds were used to update the Crossing in 2007. (See ECF No. 46 at 4-5; ECF No. 53 at 4-5.) While the parties disagree about the nature and extent of the update, Plaintiff admits that the upgrade entailed "installation of the tract circuitry for the automatic warning activation." (ECF No. 53 at 5.) Moreover, Defendant has presented evidence through deposition testimony, which Plaintiff does not dispute, detailing the specific improvements made to the Crossing. (See Deposition of Brent Lewis, ECF No. 46-7.) Specifically, Defendant has presented undisputed evidence that the improvements consisted of: (1) installation of a "new crossing enclosure, " i.e. "the silver shed looking structure... that houses all of the control mechanisms for the crossing" (Id. at 91); (2) renewal of "all of... the electrical cables" and the entire "electrical service at the crossing" (Id.); (3) replacement of the "subgrade device that holds the illuminating structures, the pole, the lights and the crossbuck" (Id.); (4) and installation of a new "predictor, " which "[is] used to activate the lights and actually provides the voltage to illuminate the bulb." (Id. at 95-96.)

         IV. Legal Standard

         "Summary judgment is appropriate only where ... there is no genuine issue as to any material fact... and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Melrose, Inc. v. Pittsburgh, 613 F.3d 380, 387 (3d Cir.2010) (quoting Ruehl v. Viacom, Inc., 500 F.3d 375, 380 n. 6 (3d Cir.2007)); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Issues of fact are genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); see also McGreevy v. Stroup, 413 F.3d 359, 363 (3d Cir. 2005). Material facts are those that will affect the outcome of the trial under governing law. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. The Court's role is "not to weigh the evidence or to determine the truth of the matter, but only to determine whether the evidence of record is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Am. Eagle Outfitters v. Lyle & Scott Ltd., 584 F.3d 575, 581 (3d Cir. 2009). "In making this determination, 'a court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all inferences in that party's favor/" Farrell v. Planters Lifesavers Co., 206 F.3d 271, 278 (3d Cir.2000) (quoting Armbruster v. Unisys Corp., 32 F.3d 768, 777 (3d Cir. 1994).

         The moving party bears the initial responsibility of stating the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. If the moving party meets this burden, the party opposing summary judgment "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials" of the pleading, but "must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 F.3d 228, 232 (3d Cir. 2001) (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 n. 11 (1986)). "For an issue to be genuine, the nonmovant needs to supply more than a scintilla of evidence in support of its position-there must be sufficient evidence (not mere allegations) for a reasonable jury to find for the nonmovant." Coolspring Stone Supply v. Am. States Life Ins. Co., 10 F.3d 144, 148 (3d Cir.1993); see also Podobnik v. U.S. Postal Sew., 409 F.3d 584, 594 (3d Cir. 2005) (noting that a party opposing summary judgment "must present more than just bare assertions, conclusory allegations or suspicions to show the existence of a genuine issue") (internal quotation marks omitted).

         V. Discussion

         "To state a claim for negligence under Pennsylvania law, the plaintiff must allege the following elements: (1) a legal duty; (2) a breach of that duty; (3) a causal relationship between the defendant's negligence and plaintiff's injuries; and (4) damages." Andrews v. Fullington Trail Ways, LLC, No. CV 3:15-228, 2016 WL 3748579, at *4 (W.D. Pa. 2016), citing City of Philadelphia v. Beretta U.S.A. Corp., 277 F.3d 415, 422 n. 9 (3d Cir. 2002).

         "To establish the causation element in a negligence claim, a plaintiff must allege that the defendant's breach of his legal duty was both the proximate and actual cause of injury." McCullough v. Peeples, No. CIV.A. 3:14-123, 2015 WL1000223, at *3 (W.D. Pa. 2015), citing Reilly v. Tiergarten Inc., 430 Pa.Super. 10, 633 A.2d 208, 210 (Pa.Super.1993). "Actual causation is present when the alleged injury would not have occurred but for a certain act or presence of a condition... while proximate causation requires that the defendant's wrongful act be a substantial factor in bringing about the plaintiff's harm." Andrews, 2016 WL 3748579 at *5, citing Dudley v. USX Corp., 414 Pa. Super. 160, 606 A.2d 916, 923 (Pa. Super. 1992) (internal quotations omitted). Plaintiff must prove both elements of causation "by a preponderance of the evidence." Hamil v. Bashline, 481 Pa. 256, 265, 392 A.2d 1280, 1284 (1978).

         "[Q]uestions of proximate cause are typically reserved for the jury." Vanesko v. Marina Dist. Dev. Co., LLC, 38 F.Supp.3d 535, 543 (E.D. Pa. 2014) (internal citations omitted.). However, "[n]othing precludes a court from determining proximate cause as a matter of law if a jury could not reasonably differ on the issue." Garlick v. Anadarko Petroleum Corp., No. 4:12-CV-01166, 2017 WL 3485738, at *16 (M.D. Pa. 2017), citing Chetty Holdings Inc. v. NorthMarq Capital, LLC, 556 Fed.Appx. 118, 121 (3d Cir. 2014).

         Plaintiff's negligence claims fit into the following five categories: (a) negligent handling and operation of the train for failure to slow or stop before it struck Plaintiff; (b) negligent operation of the train for exceeding the authorized speed limit; (c) negligent lack of pedestrian warning devices at the Crossing; (d) negligent maintenance of the Crossing; and (e) negligent failure to issue proper audible warnings to announce the approach of the train. Plaintiff also seeks punitive damages.

         The Court will address these claims in turn.

         a. Negligent Handling and Operation of the Train

         1. Duty and Breach

         The leading case in Pennsylvania regarding the duties owed to pedestrians at train crossings is Moss v. Reading Co.,418 Pa. 598, 212 A.2d 226 (1965). In Moss, the administrator of the decedent's estate brought a negligence suit against a railroad company, claiming that defendant's train should have slowed or stopped before striking the decedent. Id. at 601. At trial the train's engineer testified that he first saw decedent when decedent was approximately 1, 500 feet ahead of the train across the roadbed. Id. at 600. Once decedent proceeded across a nearby set of tracks, the engineer blew the train's whistle but he did not apply the emergency brake; he thought decedent would stop at the adjacent track, rather than proceeding onto the track upon which the train was traveling. Id. at ...


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