Teenager hit by train gets no relief in appeal to 7th Circuit

A 17-year-old who was found to be more than 50 percent at fault for the injuries he sustained from running in front of a moving train was unable to convince the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals that he had no warning the locomotive was coming down the tracks.

Ja’Lin Williams and two of his friends took off running from Whihala Beach in Whiting to avoid being arrested for trespassing. As the young men were dashing across multiple sets of railroad tracks, a train was approaching on the two sets of tracks owned and operated by Norfolk Southern Corp. and Norfolk Southern Railway Corp.

One of Williams’ friends sped across the track, another stopped while Williams continued running without looking up. He was then struck by the train.

Subsequently, Williams sued Norfolk. But the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division, granted summary judgment in favor of the railroad company, finding Williams was more than 50 percent at fault.

The 7th Circuit affirmed in Ja’Lin Williams v. Norfolk Southern Corporation and Norfolk Southern Railway Company, 18-2517. On appeal, Williams argued that his testimony and the testimony of his friends illustrated there were still material disputes of facts that justified sending the case to the jury. In particular, he said he did not recall seeing any warning lights or the light from the train nor did he hear the train’s horn or bells.

The appellate panel pointed to Indiana Comparative Fault Act, which bars recovery in actions where the fault of the claimant exceeds 50 percent of the total. Here, the 7th Circuit found the video evidence “blatantly contradicts” Williams’ testimony. The video shows the train’s horn and bells were sounding and its lights were on, but the young men proceeded past the warning signals.

In addition, the 7th Circuit cited Ohio & M. Ry. Co. v. Walker, 15 N.E. 234, 237 (Ind. 1888) which has established that a train operator has no duty to reduce a train’s speed if he sees a person crossing the tracks. Also, under New York Cent. R. Co. v. Casey, 14 N.E. 2d 714, 717 (Ind. 1938), the train operator is entitled to presume that the person will take the necessary steps to avoid injury unless he has good reason to believe the person is unconscious or disabled.

“Williams suffered from no such disability, and given the many warnings that were present, the train crew was entitled to presume that he was not unconscious of the train’s approach,” Judge Amy Coney Barrett wrote for the 7th Circuit. “It didn’t become clear that Williams wouldn’t stop … until the moment before the collision, and by then it was far too late to meaningfully slow the moving train.”

This article was first published by The Indiana Lawyer.

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