Appeals court reverses $8.2 million verdict against UP, orders change of venue

David Yates Jul. 20, 2009, 8:49am

Ruling that a case tried in the wrong county is "never harmless," justices on the Texas Ninth District Court of Appeals reversed an $8.2 million verdict levied against Union Pacific Railroad on July 16.

In November 2007, the Southeast Texas Record reported on a Jefferson County wrongful death trial in which jurors found UP negligent for failing to install safety devices at a crossing where Louisiana resident Patsy Ardoin was struck and killed and her daughter Jasmine was seriously injured.

The Jefferson County jury awarded Jasmine's father Derrick Cezar more than $8 million in damages.

UP appealed the verdict, arguing Judge Gary Sanderson, 60th District Court, should have never conducted the trial and was legally bound to transfer the case to Harris County.

According to court papers and testimony, the train collision occurred at a crossing in Vinton, La., in 2005, all plaintiffs reside in Vinton and UP has its principal Texas office in Harris County.

In spite of those factors, the plaintiffs argued that the case belonged in Jefferson County because the train started its run in Beaumont.

Judge Sanderson agreed and the trial was held in his court. Jurors eventually found Union Pacific to be 65 percent responsible for the collision. Twenty percent of the blame was placed on the Louisiana Department of Transportation and 15 percent on Ardoin.

Court records show Ardoin drove a Dodge Ram truck to the Union Pacific crossing and stopped on the tracks. A Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train struck the truck at 45 miles per hour.

Testimony during the trial showed that numerous other vehicles were stopped at the crossing but Ardoin inexplicably entered the crossing.

Jasmine was flung from the pickup on impact and broke her neck. Doctors say she will more than likely be confined to a wheel chair for the rest of her life.

On appeal, UP asserted that the case should be transferred to Harris County where its principal office is located, and that Jefferson County was never the proper venue for the suit.

The court agreed, reversed the judgment against the railroad and remanded the case for transfer.

"Because trial in a county of improper venue is never harmless error, we conclude that UP is entitled to have the trial court's judgment awarding damages against it reversed, and venue of the claims brought against it transferred to Harris County, Texas" wrote Justice Hollis Horton.

"We therefore reverse the trial court's judgment against UP, but we affirm the trial court's judgment denying relief against all other defendants. We remand the cause to the trial court with instructions that the trial court instruct the district clerk to transfer this file to the District Clerk of Harris County, Texas."

Case background

In 2006 Jasmine's father, Derrick Cezar, sued Burlington Northern Santa Fe, three crew members and Union Pacific.
Cezar sought damages for Jasmine and Ardoin's three other children.

His lawyers, Jason Itkin and Kurt Arnold, claimed the crew should have avoided the accident and Union Pacific should have installed flashing lights and bells at the crossing.

Later they added Union Pacific claims investigator Jack Mann as a defendant. Prior to trial they dismissed Burlington Northern Santa Fe and all individuals but Mann.

They argued the case should stay in Jefferson County because Mann lived in Beaumont.

Union Pacific moved for a directed verdict releasing Mann from the suit, and Sanderson granted it.

According to the railroad, that should have ended Jefferson County jurisdiction.

Sanderson disagreed and took the case to trial, applying Louisiana law.

During the trial, Union Pacific lawyer Douglas Poole argued to jurors that a railroad can't install lights and bells without approval from transportation officials.

Poole argued that federal law preempted Cezar's claims because Union Pacific spent federal funds on the crossing.

Poole presented an affidavit of a Union Pacific employee swearing the railroad spent federal funds, but Sanderson would not allow it as evidence.

At the close of trial, Sanderson asked jurors to decide if the crossing constituted a dangerous trap or a local hazard.
Jurors agreed it wasn't a dangerous trap but it was a local hazard.

They awarded more than $6 million for Jasmine's past and future damages, almost $1 million for the other children, and more than $1 million in interest.

Horton, Chief Justice Steve McKeithen and Justice Charles Kreger presided over the appeal.

Appeals case No. 09-08-00092-CV
Trial case No. B176-429

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