The railroad grade crossing accident case is one of the evergreens of American jurisprudence. The crossing at grade is not only an intersection between railroad and highway, but in earlier days, it was an intersection between conventional technology and new technology. Today, it is an intersection between the inexorable forces of hundreds of tons of locomotives & cars moving at speed with rubber tired vehicles under the direction of the imprudent or impulsive. And, it is an opportunity for the plaintiff’s bar to redistribute the railroads’ capital. Every grade crossing closure is cause for gala celebration in the railroad’s legal department.
Given the inevitable outcome of something very heavy hitting something relatively light, the legal pleadings take on a timeless, almost Kabuki-like portrayal of events. For the plaintiff’s bar: The cruel and insensitive railroad was operating a train which was under the direction of someone completely unfit for duty due to a combination of no sleep, alcohol consumption (now drugs today), who failed to sound proper warnings from his train which was operating at excessive speed. For the defense: The automobile or truck was under the direction of someone completely unfit to be driving due to a combination of no sleep, alcohol consumption (now drugs today), or impulsiveness, who failed to obey the proper warnings of an approaching train that was operating at proper speed and which was being operated by a prudent individual who attended church regularly. And, these being modern times, you can also throw in a cellphone for good measure.
In spite of the customary impulsive behavior of the hittee in these cases, jury heartstrings usually were plucked with great skill, and dollars were awarded to the plaintiffs on the assumption that the heartless railroad could well afford such an award. To this extent, not much has changed over the intervening centuries since that first collision between train and carriage.
Interestingly, the first casualty of the new railroad technology was one of its investors, a William Huskisson, who was a leading economist in the England of the early 1800’s. He managed to do it in a spectacular fashion. Being one of the investors in the fledgling Liverpool & Manchester Railway, he was present at the railroad’s opening day, September 15, 1830. After riding the locomotive Northumbrian, he dismounted and turned to cross an adjacent track to speak with the Duke of Wellington. In spite of shouts of warning from the crowd, he did not see the locomotive Rocket, which was approaching, probably at the blazing speed of 20 mph. He was struck and severely injured, dying later that day. This would not be the last time that railroad personnel would die that way.
At that point, railroad technology was five years old.