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Evans v. Pennsylvania Railroad Co.

decided.: May 2, 1958.


Author: Layton

Before KALODNER and HASTIE, Circuit Judges, and LAYTON, District Judge.

LAYTON, District Judge.

These are four appeals by defendant from judgments entered in favor of the plaintiffs by the United States Court for the District of Delaware. They are companion cases arising out of a collision between an automobile in which the plaintiffs were passengers and defendant's train. Jurisdiction was based on diversity of citizenship and Delaware law is controlling. The actions were consolidated and tried by the Court. Those appeals were also consolidated and argued together.

Very briefly, the facts are these. On the dark, rainy evening of May 20, 1955, five young men were proceeding southerly on Route 14, Sussex County, Delaware, in a car driven by Daniels.*fn1 Ahead lay the hamlet of Nassau intersected by the railroad crossing of the defendants. The approach of trains from the west (to the right of plaintiffs' machine) is largely concealed by an extensive orchard, buildings and shade trees. As plaintiffs' machine was between 100 ft. to 160 ft. of the tracks, Daniels suddenly perceived defendant's train slowly entering the crossing and slammed on the brakes but was unable to prevent a collision which resulted in death to Jester, terrible injuries to Evans and minor injuries to the others.

The trial judge found that the crossing in question was extremely hazardous because of (1) the large volume of automotive traffic using the highway, (2) the irregular scheduling of trains, (3) the angle at which the track and road meet, (4) obstructions concealing the approach of the trains and (5) the archaic lighting system on defendant's freight trains. Defendant strenuously attacks the bases for each of these findings. However, we deem it unnecessary to examine in detail the reasoning of the trial judge as to why defendant was negligent, for, in the final analysis, if it was negligent in only one respect and that negligence was the, or one of the, proximate causes of the accident, then liability necessarily follows. The answer to this inquiry must lie in an examination of the applicable Delaware law.

Perhaps the leading case in Delaware dealing with this question is Roberts v. Maryland, Delaware and Virginia R.R. Co., frequently referred to as Lofland's Brickyard Crossing Cases, 5 Boyce 150, 28 Del. 150, 91 A. 285, 287. There the Superior Court said:

"It is also well established by innumerable authorities that at some crossings other warnings in addition to the statutory warnings will be required of a railroad under peculiar circumstances or on extraordinary occasions.A railroad company is required to operate its trains with the care and prudence which the peculiar circumstances of the place reasonably require. This is the rule of the common law and is also the law in this state.

"A railroad crossing ordinarily is a place of great danger, and if at the crossing there are obstructions of such a nature that a traveler on the highway approaching the crossing is prevented from seeing an approaching train, or if the peculiar conditions surrounding the crossings are of a nature that a traveler using due care and caution likewise is prevented from hearing the blowing of a whistle on the approaching locomotive, the danger of the crossing is increased, and the degree of care on the part of the railroad to warn travelers on the highway of the approach of trains is correspondingly increased."

And, as said by former Chief Justice Lore in Reed v. Queen Anne's R. Co., 4 Pennewill, Del., 413, 57 A. 529, 531:

"If the crossing be in a thickly populated or much frequented locality, or if the view of the crossing be obstructed, or exceptionally dangerous from any cause, it is the duty of the company to exercise greater care and caution, proportioned in every case to the danger, so as reasonably to avoid accident."

The same thought was expressed by former Chief Justice Layton in Leedom v. Pennsylvania R. Co., 3 Terry 186, 42 Del. 186, 29 A.2d 171, 173:

"At ordinary grade crossings, the sounding of the whistle, or perhaps, the ringing of the bell, may be a sufficient warning. At peculiarly dangerous crossings, some more efficient means of warning, or even an obstruction to passage, might be necessary."

In short, the Delaware law is that all railroad crossing are dangerous, requiring reasonable warning to the motorist of their existence, and the more dangerous the crossing, the greater the degree of warning is demanded.

Now, here, we are dealing with an unconcealed crossing, that is, a crossing the approach to which for some distance is a straight, level road. Thus, the several warning signs*fn2 together with the ringing of bells and the train whistle might well be regarded as sufficient warnings under the circumstances but for one important fact - the approach of the train from plaintiffs' right was virtually concealed. Whether or not this circumstance required additional warning is, under the Delaware decisions, traditionally a question for the jury. In support of ...

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