HARRIS v. NORFOLK S. RY. CO., NO. 13-1975  

 

Decided: April 30, 2015

The Fourth Circuit held that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Norfolk Southern Railway Company (“Norfolk”) was the cause of Harris’s injuries, and on that basis, the court reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Harris on the issue of liability.  The Fourth Circuit also held that the level of misconduct Harris alleged the railway had engaged in did not reach the level required under West Virginia law for punitive damages, and thereby affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment against Harris on the issue of punitive damages.

On July 21, 2009, Harris was working on the second floor of a Cobra Natural Resources (“Cobra”) coal-loading plant in West Virginia when Norfolk employees backed an empty set of Norfolk freight cars over the Norfolk railroad track which ran under the Cobra plant.  Though no one was aware, 35 feet from the plant, the track was corroded and cracked, and had been for “months or years before,” such that the rail had come apart.  This damage to the track caused several freight cars to derail and hit the Cobra plant’s support beams, causing the collapse of the loadout in which Harris sustained injuries.  Harris sued in state court, alleging negligence against Norfolk, and seeking compensatory and punitive damages.  Norfolk removed the case to federal court, and Harris and Norfolk both filed for summary judgment.  The district court found as a matter of law that Norfolk violated its duty to inspect the track, since the track was always covered with coal, dirt and debris, and that the railway knew or should have known of the damage to the track.  The district court thus granted summary judgment to Harris on the issue of liability, but granted summary judgment against him on the issue of punitive damages, finding insufficient evidence to sustain the award of such damages.  A district court jury subsequently awarded Harris nearly three million dollars, and Norfolk moved unsuccessfully for a new trial or remittitur.   Norfolk and Harris both appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

The Fourth Circuit began its analysis by noting that the Federal Railway Safety Act and the Track Safety Standards promulgated by the Secretary of Transportation created a duty for Norfolk to inspect the tracks, and provided some limited guidance on how the inspections should be completed.  The court then found that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to Harris on the issue of liability.  The court found, based on statutory and regulatory language and policy considerations, that Norfolk had a duty to address track defects of which it knew, or should have known.  The court further found that, based on regulatory language, practicalities, and policy considerations, the regulations did not require Norfolk to visually inspect every inch of track structure, but did give Norfolk an obligation to make a reasonable visual inspection of the tracks under all the circumstances.  The court found that Norfolk breached this duty when it failed for months and years to look at any embedded portion of the track, despite the fact that the track was so covered in coal and debris that an inspection made on foot or from a vehicle would not have allowed inspectors to see the rail beneath the rail head.  Despite Norfolk’s breach of duty, the court found that the evidence that Norfolk’s breach was the proximate cause of the derailment, and thus of Harris’s injuries, was not so one-sided that summary judgment should have been granted for Harris on the issue of liability.  The court further found that, under West Virginia law, punitive damages are reserved for cases of extreme negligence, and the evidence in the instant case did not support such a finding, or the resulting punitive damages.  As a result, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Harris on the issue of liability, affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment against Harris on the issue of punitive damages, and remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

Full Opinion

Katherine H. Flynn

 

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