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Common law negligence has four elements: a legal duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, a breach of that duty, an actual injury to the plaintiff, and a causal link between the breach and the injury. With respect to the element of causation, a plaintiff alleging negligence must show both "but-for" and proximate causation. The former requires a showing that the harm would not have occurred "but for" the defendant's conduct such that the tortious conduct was a necessary condition for the occurrence of the plaintiff's harm; the latter requires a showing that the defendant's negligence was legally sufficient to result in liability in that the injurious consequences flowed from the defendant's conduct and were not interrupted by some intervening cause.
The collision that was the subject of this case occurred at a railroad grade crossing on Slaughterhouse Road in Northfield Falls, Vermont. Defendant New England Central Railroad, Inc., owned a track and crossties in either direction along the railway line from the crossing. Since 1995, the defendant has maintained and controlled a right of way at the crossing. At the time of the 2011 collision, in this case, a crossbuck sign was posted at the crossing on the left-hand side of Slaughterhouse Road from the perspective of motorists approaching Route 12. At some point, a motorist approaching the crossing from the direction of Route 12 clears the rock outcropping and is able to see a distance down the track to the right. Slaughterhouse Road intersects the track at an angle. The crossing surface consists of wooden planks. Shortly after noon on the day of the collision, plaintiff Matthew Ziniti was mapping out a new running route in his pickup truck, intending to follow Slaughterhouse Road to the point where he thought it connected with another road. Shortly before the collision, he turned from Route 12 onto Slaughterhouse Road and drove over the covered bridge. An oncoming train struck his truck as he was crossing. According to the data, the train’s horn was sounded for eleven seconds prior to impact. Plaintiff admitted that the train crew properly sounded the train's horn. That the horn was loud enough to comply with federal regulations. Plaintiff filed a complaint against the defendant and three of its employees, alleging negligence in failing to give an adequate audible warning of the train's approach, to provide adequate sightlines for motorists to see an approaching train at the crossing, to inspect and repair an unsafe crossing, to report unsafe conditions at the crossing, and to install adequate warning devices at the crossing. After the trial, the jury determined that the defendant was not negligent. On appeal, the plaintiff challenged the trial court's ruling precluding him from arguing that the defendant was liable on account of the absence of a crossbuck on the right side of the road and an advance warning sign; the court's denial of a request for a jury view of the accident site; the court's denial of his motion for a directed verdict finding defendant liable as a matter of law on account of its violation of a safety statute relating to maintenance of the railroad right of way; and the court's denial of his request for an instruction on the sudden emergency doctrine.
Were the plaintiff’s claims in his negligence case meritorious?
The court rejected each of these arguments and affirmed the judgment in favor of the defendant. The court held that even assuming that the absence of an advance warning sign before a railroad crossing or the defendant's failure to place a crossbuck on the right-hand side of the road amounted to a breach of the defendant's duty of care, the plaintiff could not prove defendant's liability for negligence without evidence that the train-car collision would not have occurred had either sign been in place. The court also held that the trial court properly denied a jury view of the crossing, having given the parties a fair opportunity to make their arguments and then made a reasoned and reasonable decision that took into account the competing interests at stake. The court added that even assuming that plaintiff conclusively established that the defendant violated a safety statute, that would not establish the defendant's liability to the plaintiff for negligence, thus, the plaintiff would not be entitled to judgment as a matter of law on his negligence claim.