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Estate of Bloodworth ex rel. Bloodworth v. Illinois Cent. R. Co.

Supreme Court of Mississippi

November 21, 2013

The ESTATE OF Christopher Allan BLOODWORTH, by and through Opal BLOODWORTH, Administratrix, on behalf of the wrongful death beneficiaries of Christopher Allan Bloodworth; the Estate of Steven Earl Tallant, Jr., by and through Linda Tallant and Stephanie Dykes, Co-Adminstratrix, on behalf of the wrongful death beneficiaries of Steven Earl Tallant, Jr.; Opal Bloodworth, individually; Earl Bloodworth, individually; the Estate of Marcus Richardson, by and through Jacqueline Amos, Administratrix, individually and on behalf of the wrongful death beneficiaries of Marcus Richardson; and the Estate of A.W. Hilson, by and through Melvin Hilson, Administrator, individually, and on behalf of all wrongful death Beneficiaries of A. W. Hilson
v.
ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD COMPANY, Ronnie C. Hollowell; J.D. Miller; James Shoemaker and Thomas Caldwell.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Sara Bailey Russo, Ralph Edwin Chapman, Dana J. Swan, Clarksdale, Jason Lee Shelton, Tupelo, Edward P. Connell, Jr., Clarksdale, attorneys for appellants.

Glenn F. Beckham, Harris Frederick Powers, III, Greenwood, attorneys for appellees.

Before DICKINSON, P.J., PIERCE and COLEMAN, JJ.

PIERCE, Justice.

¶ 1. This appeal arises out of a civil suit by the estates and wrongful-death beneficiaries of Christopher Allan Bloodworth, Steven Earl Tallant Jr., Marcus Richardson, and A.W. Hilson, four men killed at a railroad crossing when a freight train collided with the truck in which they were traveling (hereinafter Plaintiffs). The wrongful-death beneficiaries of Bloodworth, Tallant, Richardson, and Hilson filed their complaint(s) against Illinois Central and its employees: the train crew, Ronnie C. Hollowell (the engineer) and J.D. Miller (the conductor), as well as other employees of Illinois Central's track department, Thomas Caldwell and James Shoemaker, (hereinafter Defendants).[1]

¶ 2. Defendants filed two motions for summary judgment in the matter. The circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of Defendants with respect to Plaintiffs' claims alleging negligent operation of the train. The circuit court also granted partial summary judgment in favor of Defendants on three of four contested issues regarding the engineering and maintenance of the railroad crossing— leaving one surviving claim. The circuit court then granted five of Defendants' motions in limine to exclude Plaintiffs' evidence. Finding that, without the excluded evidence, Plaintiffs could not support the remaining claim, the circuit court granted Defendants' motions for summary judgment in their entirety and issued a judgment and certificate pursuant to Rule 54(b) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure. Plaintiffs appeal to this Court, and Defendants have filed a cross-appeal as to certain rulings issued by the trial court. Because we affirm the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Defendants on each claim by Plaintiffs, we dismiss Defendants' cross-appeal as moot.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 3. At approximately 6:23 a.m. on May 30, 2005, a southbound Illinois Central freight train struck an eastbound Tallahatchie County work truck at a railroad crossing

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(known as the Mikoma Crossing) on Highway 32 in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, killing all four of the truck's occupants— Hilson, Bloodworth, Tallant and Richardson. Hilson, the driver, was an employee of Tallahatchie County. The passengers, Bloodworth, Tallant, and Richardson, each were inmates at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility.

¶ 4. At the time of the accident, Illinois Central owned, controlled, and operated the railway and the trains running thereon. When the accident occurred, the train's engineer, Hollowell, and the conductor, Miller were employed by Illinois Central and were operating the train during its travel. Hollowell and Miller, were the only surviving eyewitnesses to the accident.

¶ 5. Following the accident, the passenger-inmates' families and estates initiated a wrongful-death action against Illinois Central, Hollowell, Miller and various other employees and affiliates of Illinois Central.[2] In addition, Bloodworth, Richardson, and Tallant sued Hilson's estate, as he was the driver of the inmate's work truck. The passengers' families also demanded punitive damages from both the Illinois Central Defendants and Hilson. Hilson's estate and beneficiaries filed a cross-claim against Illinois Central and its employees for wrongful death and death benefits.

Procedural History

¶ 6. Defendants filed two motions for summary judgment, dividing Plaintiffs' claims into two genera: negligence with respect to the train's operation and negligence with respect to the crossing's engineering and maintenance. Specifically, Plaintiffs claimed that Hollowell and Miller had failed to keep a proper lookout, had failed to avoid the accident, and had failed to sound the train's horn; while Illinois Central had failed to supervise them as its employees. Further, Plaintiffs claimed Illinois Central and its employees had failed to remove obstructive vegetation, had negligently engineered and designed the Mikoma crossing, had installed an inadequate warning mechanism at the crossing, and negligently had maintained the signal system itself.

¶ 7. The circuit court initially granted summary judgment in favor of Defendants on all claims except one; it denied summary judgment with respect to the adequacy of the type of signal system installed at the crossing.

¶ 8. Defendants then filed eight motions in limine to exclude Plaintiffs' evidence at trial. Via the in limine motions, Defendants sought to limit testimony of Plaintiffs' expert Kenneth Heathington, and to exclude evidence of other accidents at the crossing, near-accidents at the crossing, alleged vegetation removal after the instant accident, evidence of instances of signal malfunctions, and evidence of economic damages, because three of the decedents were incarcerated at the time of their deaths. The circuit court subsequently granted these exclusions/limitations in favor of Defendants.

¶ 9. After granting three in limine motions, partially granting two in limine motions and reserving ruling on one of Defendants' motions in limine, Defendants made a supplemental motion for summary judgment. The trial court thereafter heard arguments concerning the sole surviving claim— whether the type of signal system installed at the Mikoma crossing was appropriate for such a crossing, and similarly, whether it was adequate for warning purposes therein. Having excluded

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much of Plaintiffs' evidence necessary to plead the surviving claim, the trial court concluded that summary judgment was proper on Plaintiffs' last claim.[3] After granting summary judgment in favor of Defendants on Plaintiffs' last claim, the trial court disposed of the action pursuant to Rule 54(b).[4]

¶ 10. This appeal followed. Additional facts, as necessary, will be related in our discussion of the issues.

ISSUES

¶ 11. Plaintiffs' assert the following issues:

I. Whether the circuit court erred when it granted Defendants' motions for summary judgment.
II. Whether the circuit court erred when it granted Defendants' motions in limine.
III. Whether the circuit court erred in denying Plaintiffs' right to have a jury decide their claims.

ANALYSIS

¶ 12. Specifically, the Plaintiffs contest the circuit court's orders granting Defendants' two motions for summary judgment and four motions in limine. Defendants, conversely, contest the three motions in limine which were granted partially and partially denied. As mentioned, because we find Defendants' claims are moot, they will not be addressed.[5]

I. Whether the circuit court erred in granting Defendants' motions for summary judgment.

¶ 13. Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides for summary judgment.[6] On appeal, this Court reviews an order of summary judgment de novo. [7] " Upon reviewing a grant of summary judgment, this Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion has been made." [8] The sole determination, with respect to a summary judgment motion, is whether " triable issue[s]" exist, and the Court does not proceed

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to resolve issues outside a trial.[9] " The judgment sought shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." [10]

¶ 14. On appeal, Plaintiffs assert that the circuit court improperly granted summary judgment in favor of Defendants, despite the existence of material factual issues that Plaintiffs believe should have been reserved for a jury. The circuit court, in its November 8, 2011, order, granted summary judgment in favor of Defendants with respect to all of Plaintiffs' negligent-operation claims, which alleged the operators (1) failed to sound the warning horn, (2) failed to brake to avoid the collision, (3) failed to keep a proper lookout, and that (4) Illinois Central failed to properly supervise its employees. Regarding Defendants' second motion for summary judgment, the court granted judgment on three of Plaintiffs' negligent-maintenance and engineering claims, including claims that Illinois Central (1) failed to remove obstructive vegetation at the Mikoma Crossing, (2) negligently engineered and designed the crossing, and (3) negligently maintained the Mikoma Crossing's flasher-light signal system. The court denied summary judgment regarding Plaintiffs' claims that the Mikoma crossing warning system was inadequate.[11]

Negligent Operation of the Train [12]

¶ 15. In their complaint, Plaintiffs allege the train's operators, Hollowell and Miller, failed to use reasonable care, maintain a proper lookout, maintain the train under the proper control or sound the train's horn before the collision, and thus, operated the horn in such a way that a vehicle lawfully crossing the train tracks would be struck.[13] Under what this Court refers to as the " Plaintiffs' operational claims" (aside from the later-discussed " engineering/maintenance claims" ), Plaintiffs attribute negligence to Illinois Central and its employees via expert testimony that posits the accident could not have occurred as Hollowell and Miller claim. Although Plaintiffs conceded many of their operational-negligence claims at oral argument before this Court, we nonetheless address the issues involved.

¶ 16. The maximum allowable speed limit for freight trains traveling across the Mikoma Crossing is 60 mph. Hollowell stated in his deposition that the train's speed immediately prior to the accident was approximately 50 mph. Both Hollowell and Miller stated in their respective depositions that each was keeping a proper lookout as the train approached the Mikoma Crossing. Miller was looking to the east for westbound traffic when he saw the truck a split second prior to the collision. Hollowell also was looking for any vehicles approaching the Mikoma Crossing and blowing the train's horn. Hollowell first saw the truck approaching the crossing at a distance of approximately 120 to 140 feet

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from the crossing. Hollowell estimated the truck's speed to be between 50 and 55 mph, because this was the posted speed limit on Highway 32. Hollowell said he immediately applied the train's emergency brakes when he saw the truck, because it was apparent that the truck was not going to stop. Hollowell and Miller were the only surviving eyewitnesses to the collision. Their accounts of the events before and leading up to the accident were supported by the train's event recorder.[14]

¶ 17. According to the event-recorder printout, at 6:23:02 a.m., the train's speed went from 48.5 mph to 49.5 mph. The train speed stayed at 49.5 mph as it approached the Mikoma Crossing. The locomotive horn activated at approximately 1,283 feet before the point of impact. Emergency braking began at 6:23:21 a.m, approximately two seconds prior to impact. The train came to a stop at 6:24:03 a.m. The train traveled a distance of approximately 1,864 feet during emergency braking, and the train took approximately 42 seconds to stop once the emergency brakes were activated.

A. Train's Horn Signal

¶ 18. Under Mississippi law, when approaching a railroad crossing, train operators are required to sound the train's horn or whistle at least 300 yards away from the crossing until the crossing is ...


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