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$1.4 million verdict in rail crossing death upheld

/ Source: The Associated Press

A federal appeals court upheld a $1.4 million verdict against Norfolk Southern Corp. over a crash that killed a motorist at a railroad crossing 11 years ago.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati agreed with attorneys for the family of Eddie Shanklin that the railroad could be held liable for a Gibson County crossing overgrown with vegetation.

Shanklin, 40, was driving home from work before dawn when his vehicle was struck at the crossing near Milan, less than a mile from his residence. The crossing did not have automatic gates or a flashing signal, according to court documents.

"This is a stunning victory for railroad safety," said Pam O'Dwyer of Chattanooga, an attorney for the family. "It tells the railroads if they don't take safety precautions, they'll have to pay for it."

Officials with Virginia-based Norfolk Southern did not answer a telephone message seeking comment.

Court records show the train was obscured by a tunnel of vegetation over the tracks and failed to give proper warning with its horn.

Shanklin's car was broadsided and pushed a quarter mile before the train stopped.

Attorneys for the railroad contended it has no legal responsibility to clear vegetation and improve visibility around crossings.

O'Dwyer said both the Tennessee Department of Transportation, in a since-abandoned practice, and the railroad have addressed sight distance problems as a key step in improving safety.

In the decision, U.S. Judge Karl Forester wrote that "reasonable minds could reach differing conclusions" about the railroad's liability. He also noted that the railroad was aware of danger created by the overgrowth and the "foreseeable probability and gravity of harm" of an accident outweighed the cost of clearing the crossing.

A 1996 jury found in favor of Shanklin's widow and the railroad was ordered to pay her $430,765.

Norfolk Southern's appeal took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned the decision, and it went to trial a second time.

In 2001, a jury again found in favor of Dedra Shanklin, and returned a $1.4 million damage verdict.


Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press,