Login | March 25, 2019

Wrongful death case involving 4 teens at RR crossing reveresed

Legal News Reporter

Published: August 8, 2018

The parents of four teens who died after using a railroad crossing to make their car go airborne did not demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the absence of mandatory traffic control devices contributed to the driver losing control.

Therefore, a Lorain County trial court incorrectly denied summary judgment to Columbia and Liverpool townships on the parents’ “in repair” claim, according to the 9th District Court of Appeals.

Therese Bartchak and two other parents filed a wrongful death suit after the incident, which ended with the car veering off the road after landing and colliding with a tree.

The townships argued they are immune from liability under all the parents’ claims because they have political subdivision immunity. The trial court denied their motions as to the parents’ claims that the townships failed to remove obstructions from the road, failed to keep the road in repair and failed to have mandatory road markings.

The appellate court recently reversed the summary judgment denial, finding there were no genuine issues of material fact as to whether the design of Boston Road at the intersection of the railroad tracks constituted an obstruction.

“Following their first “jump,” the driver repositioned the car and went over the tracks again, this time losing control and going off the roadway 100 feet after landing on the road,” 9th District Judge Jennifer Hensal noted in her opinion. “There is no evidence in the record that suggests there was anything blocking or clogging the road at the time the teens went over the tracks.”

The parents claimed the condition of the road at the railroad crossing was an obstruction to motorists because it was impassable at the legal speed limit.

According to appellate records, there was a 7.9 percent grade in the road as it rose to the height of the tracks, followed by a downward slope immediately after the crossing. The sole teen who survived the collision said the group traveled on the road to use the changes in elevation to make their car go airborne.

The teens’ parents claimed the term `obstruction’ should include when motorists cannot safely travel the road at the posted speed limit. In this case, the speed limit was 55 mph and an expert said any car traveling over the tracks above 40 mph would go airborne.

“Although one of the parents’ experts testified that the crossing was not as level as possible and that an improper slope ‘could be a design issue or it could be a maintenance issue,’ he did not explain why the allegedly improper slope of the road in this case should be considered a maintenance issue,” Judge Hensal wrote. “Furthermore, although he also testified that the tracks were not even with the road, causing the crossing to be ‘rough,’ he did not explain how the unevenness of the tracks contributed to the teen driver’s loss of control.”

In addition, the parents did not submit any evidence that the teens’ car made contact with gouges in the road from other cars that had gone over the tracks and bottomed out on the far side, she added.

The plaintiffs also argued the road was not “in repair” because it was lacking mandatory traffic control devices, including an X, the letters “RR,” no passing zone markings and certain transverse lines.

The appellate court found nothing to suggest the collision would have been avoided if traffic control devices existed.

“The teens … were fully aware of the crossing and, according to the one who survived the collision, took the road for the specific purpose of going over the tracks,” Judge Hensal stated. “She also indicated that the driver of the car did not lose control until his second crossing of the tracks.”

Appellate judge Julie Schafer concurred.

Ninth District Judge Donna Carr dissented, noting the townships do not dispute the road was missing mandatory traffic control devices near the railroad tracks.

“… There was expert testimony that the railroad tracks could not be safely crossed at the posted speed limit,” Judge Carr wrote in her dissenting opinion. “Furthermore, there was additional evidence that neighbors complained about the railroad tracks and there was at least one prior serious accident at that location. This evidence coupled with the physical grooves in the road where cars had landed after going airborne supports the conclusion that the road was either in disrepair or obstructed. Yet, despite the evidence which tended to show that the townships’ trustees knew about the problem with the railroad tracks, the townships declined to take the necessary steps to resolve the issue.”

The case is cited Bartchak v. Columbia Twp., 2018-Ohio-2991.