Summary Judgment Granted to Railroad in Rural Grade Crossing Incident

On a dark November night an out-of-town tractor trailer driver turned off of highway 77 onto a rural county gravel road outside Dakota City, Nebraska. Immediately after turning he approached a railroad grade crossing with crossbucks, stopped and scanned left and right for approaching trains. Not seeing any, he proceeded forwarded until his truck suddenly lurched forward and shut down stopped on the tracks. Turning to his left, the driver then realized a freight train was quickly approaching. As the driver attempted to get out of the cab and escape the collision, his seatbelt refused to unlatch. The train, already placed into emergency to slow its approach, collided with the tractor trailer and the driver was catapulted from his vehicle landing several feet away.

After recovering from his extensive injuries, the driver initiated a lawsuit against the railroad claiming that the railroad’s train crew failed to “keep a careful lookout,” “operated the train at an excessive speed”, “failed to sound an audible warning”, and “failed to bring the train to a halt before colliding with the plaintiff’s vehicle.” Discovery revealed that the grade crossing had crossbucks installed with federal funding. Photos from the site revealed visibility at the crossing was clear in all directions and the crossing was flat and square with the rural gravel road.

The railroad moved for summary judgment. With the excellent and impeachable testimony of the train crew, the railroad offered undisputed evidence that: (1) in violation of state law, the driver moved his vehicle from a place of safety to a place of danger when the train was in dangerous proximity to the crossing; (2) no duty arose on the train crew to slow or stop the train until it was too late for the train to slow or stop the train to avoid the incident; (3) no facts supported the driver’s claim that the railroad could have stopped the train to avoid hitting the vehicle; and (4) federal law preempted the driver’s claims related to train speed and audible warning, i.e. horn claim. The District Court for Douglas County, Nebraska, entered judgment in favor of the railroad and dismissed the case.

Nesly Beaubien v. BNSF Ry. Co., CI 11-7712 (Neb.Dist.Ct. Jul. 3, 2013).  (Order).