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Railroad Not Liable for Fatal Accident at Gwinnett County Crossing

If you are driving and there is a sudden emergency—for example, an accident takes place in front of you and you instinctively swerve to avoid the collision—can you be held liable for your own actions? In many cases, the answer is no. Georgia law recognizes a “sudden emergency” defense. This applies when a person faces a “sudden peril” and, lacking adequate time to assess the situation, takes immediate action that may result in injury to another. Keep in mind, this defense is only available when the person asserting it did not actually cause the emergency.

Smith v. Norfolk Southern Railway Company

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed the application of the emergency defense doctrine to a wrongful death lawsuit arising from a series of accidents that took place on and around a railroad crossing located in Gwinnett County. A pickup truck was traveling southbound towards the crossing. The driver of the truck sped towards a yellow light. The light turned red as the truck entered the intersection. At this point, the truck collided with a van that was attempting to make a left-hand turn into the intersection.

The force of the impact propelled the truck onto the nearby railroad tracks. Just then, the crossing signal activated closed, indicating there was an oncoming train. An 8,900-ton freight train was fast approaching. When the railroad engineer saw there was a stationary vehicle on the tracks, he initiated emergency procedures designed to slow train down. Unfortunately, the engineer was unable to fully stop the train, which hit the truck. The truck, in turn, struck and killed a man who had been a passenger in the truck and was wandering in a “daze” on the tracks. According to a witness at the scene, the man “tried to run” when he realized there was a train heading straight for him, “but it was too late.”

The deceased man’s family subsequently sued the railroad company for negligence. Specifically, the family argued the train engineer violated federal railroad safety regulations, which required him to “continuously” blow the train’s horn as it approached the crossing. There was a 16-second gap between the time the engineer initially blew his horn—just prior to beginning emergency procedures—and when he blew the horn a second time, when it was too late for the decedent to get off the tracks.

A Georgia jury ruled in favor of the railroad company. The Georgia Court of Appeals upheld the verdict, noting the “sudden emergency” defense applied to the facts of this case. The appeals court said the engineer did not cause the emergency—the initial accident between the van and the truck did—and “when the engineer realized the sudden peril in front of him, the circumstances offered him a choice of alternative courses of action without time for thought or for careful reflection.” Given the engineer only had seconds to react, his decision to try and slow down the train, rather than continue blowing his horn, was not negligent.