Railroad crossing safety questioned in Union Pacific wrongful death trial

David Yates Oct. 24, 2007, 4:00am

Whether the death of a woman struck by a train was the fault of the woman herself or the railroad's inadequate safety precautions will be debated by jurors this week as the trial of Derrick Cezar et al vs. Union Pacific Railroad Co. gets underway in Jefferson County.

The trial began Tuesday, Oct. 23 in Judge Gary Sanderson's 60th District Court.

Derrick Cezar originally filed suit against Union Pacific in February 2006, after his fiance Patsy Ardoin was killed when her vehicle collided with a BNSF train. Cezar's 4-year-old daughter was also a passenger in the vehicle. The girl was thrown from the car on impact and suffered a broken neck.

According to lawsuit documents and opening remarks by the defense and plaintiffs, the incident occurred in Vinton, La. at a "passive" railroad crossing on July 22, 2005.

A passive railroad crossing does not have electric gates, signals or sirens to notify motorists of approaching trains. Most passive crossings only have stop signs and railroad signs.

Defense attorney Douglas Poole said half of the nation's railroad crossings are currently passive.

The plaintiffs argue that had the crossing been equipped with gates and signals, Ardoin, would still be alive today, and Cezar's daughter would not be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

Plaintiffs are seeking at least $3 million in damages just to cover the girl's medical expenses.

"Corporations have a right to make a profit, but with that right comes a responsibility to (ensure public safety), said plaintiffs' lawyer Jason Itkin. "Street signs don't tell you if a train is coming."

On the other hand, Poole argued that equipping the crossing with electric gates was the responsibility of the city and the Louisiana Department of Transportation, and even if Union Pacific desired to upgrade the crossing, the company lacked the authority to make it happen.

Poole also argued that the train sounded its horn before approaching the crossing and had the legal right-of-way, and that Cezar's fiance, Ardoin, was negligent for failing to stay stopped until the train passed.

"(Ardoin) had a duty to stop at the stop sign," Poole said. "She had no legal excuse for not seeing the train…or hearing the train whistle. That is a sad fact."

Before Cezar's suit was filed in Jefferson County, Union Pacific filed suit first in a Louisiana court against Ardoin and Cezar for causing the collision and disrupting business, Itkin said.

Both sides will spend the next several days attempting to prove and disprove if the Vinton railroad crossing was a "dangerous trap."

A dangerous trap is a railroad crossing that is federally mandated to be equipped with electric gates and signals because the crossings visibility is poor.

Poole is an attorney for the McLeod Alexander Powel & Apffel law firm.
Itkin is a partner in the Arnold Itkin law firm.

Case No. B176-429

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