Choice of Law Matters Re: Virginia Litigation
If a truck driver crossing a train track is killed by an oncoming train and the evidence shows that the driver’s view partially was obstructed by lumber stacks lined up alongside the tracks, is the company that lined up the lumber stacks legally responsible for the death? As with most areas of the law, the answer is: “It depends.”
The Supreme Court of Virginia recently decided the case of RGR, LLC v. Settle. In this case, the Supreme Court overturned a $2.5 million jury verdict against RGR, LLC, the company allegedly responsible for placing the lumber stacks near the railroad crossing. The Court’s rationale was that the decedent was contributorily negligent for not crossing the tracks in a safe manner and therefore barred from recovering any damages from the company.
When it comes to personal injury lawsuits, Virginia is one of a handful of states that has a pure contributory negligence rule. Essentially, if an injured party is even 1% at fault in bringing about the injury, that person cannot recover damages from the party 99% responsible. In contrast, many other states have rules designed to assign a percentage value of fault to the various parties, and the recovery amount is based on the comparative fault of the parties.
In the case at hand, according to the Court’s opinion, the business being sued operated a business offloading lumber from trains onto trucks. The lumber was stacked alongside the railroad 23 feet from the center of the tracks. Because the railroad track crossing was over a private road, there was no stop sign, warning signal, or barrier, although there were crossbuck signs indicating the presence of railroad tracks. There was testimony that the presence of the lumber required a driver to look around the corner for potential oncoming trains, and also that the decedent’s truck was travelling over the railroad tracks slowly–at about five miles per hour or less.
Notwithstanding these facts and the jury verdict, the Court found that the evidence was clear that the driver was contributorily negligent, concluding that he did not exercise reasonable care when travelling over a “known dangerous sightline at the … crossing.”
Whether the Court was correct or not in overturning a jury verdict, the point of this blogpost is to highlight that legal rules vary from state to state, and identical facts can lead to different outcomes depending on the applicable legal rules. Litigants need to understand this and should consult counsel before deciding when and where to file a civil lawsuit.