On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 175 N.J. Super. 263 (1980).
For modification and affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Sullivan, Pashman, Clifford, Schreiber and Handler. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Handler, J. Schreiber, J., concurring. Justice Pashman joins in this opinion. Pashman and Schreiber, JJ., concurring in the result.
This case is the companion case to Renz v. Penn Central Corp., 87 N.J. 437 (1981). In this case the plaintiff, William Eden, fell onto Conrail's railroad tracks while suffering from a grand mal epileptic seizure. Plaintiff brought a negligence action seeking damages for personal injuries caused when he was struck by a train operated by defendant Dorrman and owned by defendant Conrail. The complaint against Conrail was dismissed at the end of plaintiff's case on the theory that the railroad immunity act, N.J.S.A. 48:12-152, precluded liability to anyone negligently injured while on railroad tracks without authority. The jury found Dorrman not negligent. The Appellate Division reversed and remanded as to both defendants. 175 N.J. Super. 263 (1980). However, a dissent was filed disagreeing with the majority as to several issues. The plaintiff filed an appeal as of right pursuant to R. 2:2-2(a).
The plaintiff was 31 years of age. He had suffered from grand mal and petit mal epileptic seizures since he was eight years old. As long as he was on medication, he was capable of functioning while experiencing a petit mal seizure, being able to talk with people, maintain his balance and generally be aware of his surroundings. When he was in the midst of a grand mal seizure, however, he would become unconscious, fall down and lose memory. Plaintiff suffered petit mal seizures approximately once a week before the accident in question. His last uncontrolled grand mal seizure occurred while he was a passenger on a train in Canada in 1971.
At the time of the accident on April 22, 1977, plaintiff was employed in Paterson, New Jersey. Each workday, he walked from his place of employment at the Irving Trust Building to the railroad station in Paterson. The actual waiting area consists of a blacktop platform extending more than 1,000 feet between the eastbound and westbound tracks. The platform is only inches above the rails. There is a white line two feet from the edge of the tracks, but there are no physical barriers between the platform and the tracks. While waiting for the train, plaintiff put down his briefcase and began walking around the platform. He was aware of the white line and knew that people on the platform were not to cross the line for their own safety.
Plaintiff then fell onto the tracks as a result of a grand mal seizure and was struck by an approaching Conrail train. All that he recalls of the entire accident is looking around while standing on the platform, seeing a signal device overhead, and thereafter being awakened while on his back as he was being removed from the scene. The train that struck plaintiff was operated by Robert Dorrman, an engineer for Conrail. The train was heading in a westerly direction toward Paterson. Approaching the Paterson station the tracks curve to the right (north) for approximately 200 feet and then straighten out between 600 and 900 feet from the eastern end of the platform area. When Dorrman reached the end of this curve he made a general observation down the tracks toward the station but saw nothing out of the ordinary. At this point, as it approached the station, the train was going approximately 30 m.p. h., or 40 feet per second. When approximately 300 feet from the platform Dorrman next looked down the tracks at which point he noticed what appeared to be a cardboard, boxlike object, light brown in color. The object appeared to be approximately five to six feet long, two feet wide and three to four inches thick, but Dorrman did not view the object as an obstruction and, because he did not think the object was a human being, he decided not to apply his brakes at that point.
When the engine was approximately thirty feet from the object, Dorrman blew the train's whistle and noticed the object move, at which point he realized for the first time that it was a human being. He then applied his brakes, but it was too late to avoid striking the plaintiff who was making a futile effort to scramble off of the tracks and onto the platform. The injuries suffered from the accident gave rise to this action.
We have decided today in Renz v. Penn Central that the railroad immunity act, N.J.S.A. 48:12-152, does not, as viewed by the courts below, codify common law principles of duty and trespass. Rather the act incorporates as its legal underpinning principles of fault and contributory negligence. This is evinced by the clear wording of the statutory enactment which holds that persons engaging in certain conduct described in the statute "shall be deemed to have contributed to the injury sustained and shall not recover therefor any damages."
We have further held, as a matter of statutory interpretation, that the statute incorporated the legislative determination to create railroad immunity based upon the underlying common law doctrine of contributory negligence for so long as that doctrine in its essential elements endured.
Consistent with the notion that this railroad immunity statute, like all immunity enactments, must be strictly construed, Potter v. Finch & Sons, 76 N.J. 499, 502 (1978), we have lastly determined that the Legislature would not have intended its rule of railroad immunity from liability, enacted in 1869, to remain without modification at this time over a century later when the underlying legal theory of contributory negligence was no longer a part of New Jersey or American common law -- having been rendered an obsolete historical relic by its modern heir, the doctrine of comparative negligence.
For these reasons we have prospectively held, subject of course to legislative intervention and ...