APPEAL -- CONTRIBUTORY NEGLIGENCE - NORFOLK SOUTHERN RAILWAY CO., AND NORFOLK SOUTHERN CORP. V. JOHNSON
In Norfolk Southern Railway Co., and Norfolk Southern Corp. v. Johnson, [Ms. 1090011, Mar. 11, 2011] __ So. 3d __(Ala. 2011), the Supreme Court reversed and remanded a jury verdict in the amount of approximately $2 million in compensatory damages and $3 million in punitive damages. This case arose out of a collision at a railroad crossing between a tractor-trailer rig owned by Rolison and operated by Johnson and a train operated by Norfolk Southern. Norfolk Southern filed a counterclaim against Rolison and Johnson for the property damage caused to Norfolk Southern's train by Rolison and Johnson's tractor-trailer. Rolison and Johnson alleged that, due to box cars placed on the side of the train track near the railroad crossing, Johnson's view was obstructed and he was unable to see the approaching train until moments before the accident. At trial, several witnesses corroborated Rolison and Johnson's allegations and testified regarding the dangerous condition at the railroad crossing and the visual obstruction caused by the box cars. Norfolk Southern presented photographic evidence from the day after the accident and from a reconstruction of the accident by Norfolk Southern's experts. Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Rolison and Johnson and against Norfolk Southern on Norfolk Southern's counterclaim for property damage. On appeal, the Supreme Court held based on the testimony and photographs presented at trial that Johnson failed to properly stop, look, and listen as required by law before he attempted to cross the railroad crossing and was therefore contributorily negligent as a matter of law. Additionally, the Court held that because contributory negligence was the sole proximate cause of Johnson's injuries, any wantonness on the part of the defendant could not have been the proximate cause of the accident and Norfolk Southern was entitled to a JML on Rolison and Johnson's wantonness claims. Finally, the Court held that since Rolison and Johnson were contributorily negligent as a matter of law the judgment entered in favor of Rolison and Johnson on Norfolk Southern's property damage claims must be reversed. The case was accordingly remanded for further proceedings.