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Lack of Inspection Doesn't Establish Prox Cause in RR Crash

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on May 06, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Charles Harris worked on the sixth floor of the Black Bear Preparation Plant which, sadly, was a coal loading facility, not a bear manufacturing facility. One day, Norfolk Southern railroad, owners of the trains and track receiving coal, backed a train along a corroded section of track. The train derailed, with train cars crashing into the Black Bear loading facility's support beams and sending it, and Harris, crashing to the ground.

Harris sued, alleging that Norfolk Southern was, through its negligence, liable for its injuries. While the railroad had failed to inspect the track as required by federal regulations, that failure alone wasn't enough to establish proximate cause as a matter of law, the Fourth Circuit ruled last week.

Not Your Usual Track

At trial, evidence was presented to show that the defect in the rail was extreme and had existed for some time. Norfolk Southern's own expert described it as "one of the worst" he'd ever seen. Federal regulations establish minimum requirements for track inspection, though these leave some leeway to inspectors as to the manner of inspection. Regulations also require remediation when a defect is found. Prior to the accident, much of the head of the track, where the corrosion occurred, had been covered by dirt, debris and coal for some time.

The railroad challenged on appeal the finding that, as a matter of law, Norfolk Southern had violated its duty to inspect, since the track was obscured, and that the it was responsible for Harris's injuries. After a jury trial on damages, Harris was awarded nearly $3 million.

The Fourth Circuit found, however, that Harris hadn't shown that Norfolk Southern was liable. While the railroad did breach its duty to inspect the track, proximate cause showing that breach resulted in the derailment and Harris's injuries wasn't established.

Just Breaching a Duty Is Not Enough

The Fourth Circuit found that federal regulations require track inspectors to give a "close and critical look" at the track structure. But that doesn't include "each and every part" of the track -- just what is reasonable under the circumstances. Here, Norfolk Southern breached that duty.

A breach is not all you need, however. The Fourth Circuit noted that the evidence is "not so one-sided" that, as a matter of law, one could conclude that a proper visual inspection would have revealed the defect or prevented Harris's injuries. That's a question which the district court should have allowed to be decided at trial, not on summary judgment.

That's bad news for Harris, who must now return to court to prove proximate cause.

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