SAKG Achieves Defense Verdict in Webster County, MO Amidst COVID-19 Protocols
In September 2020, after a 2-week jury trial during phase 3 of the staged reopening, Scott Ast, along with a team that included Michele Sutton on briefing and motions practice, obtained a defense verdict in Webster County, MO. The personal injury case involved a highway grade crossing accident in which the plaintiff struck the lead locomotive of our client’s train in rural Missouri. The plaintiff sought recovery for severe lower extremity injuries and traumatic brain injury asserting a variety of claims including that the railroad was negligent for failing to keep a careful lookout, failing to sound a proper horn, operating in violation of applicable speed restrictions, failing to provide gates at the crossing, and failing to maintain the signals. The plaintiff sought damages in excess of $4 million.
Suit was originally filed in 2009. In February 2016, the matter went to trial for the first time in Webster County resulting in a defense verdict, which was overturned on appeal and the case was remanded in 2017. After remand, the plaintiff alleged that the presence of critical rail joints in a portion of track one mile from the crossing mandated lowering the class of track and operating trains at lower speeds. Plaintiff also claimed the state had allocated money for the upgrade of the signals at the crossing seventh months before the accident but that the railroad negligently delayed the installation of the gates and lights. Thus, the issues tried in 2020 were not identical to those tried in 2016. The defense, however, remained the same. In addition to contending that the crew operated the train appropriately and all warning equipment was in working order, the railroad asserted that the plaintiff was negligent for approaching the rural crossing at 47-55 m.p.h. without looking for indications of an approaching train until it was within a few feet of the track.
The case was the first civil jury trial for Webster County during COVID-19. The county followed the restrictions required by Supreme Court Orders and Directives regarding social distancing, which resulted in jury selection taking place in a community center gymnasium.