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Train vs. car fault case set to begin Monday

The Citrus County Courthouse will play host to the case that helped reverse a 62-year-old state law.

By JIM ROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


INVERNESS -- As far as "claims to fame" go, this one isn't very exciting. Difficult to imagine the Chamber of Commerce erecting a sign that says "Welcome to Citrus County, the Place Where the Standing Train Doctrine of Florida Died."

Still, it's true. And the lawsuit that brought the legal doctrine to its knees will be on display this week at the courthouse.

The doctrine -- a line of legal reasoning, really -- held that a vehicle driver is always at fault when he or she strikes a train. After all, the theory goes, drivers should know where trains are and should avoid hitting them.

Since the late 1930s, that had been the precept on which Florida courts decided cases involving trains and cars.

But no more. The Florida Supreme Court last year discarded the doctrine and let local courts know, in no uncertain terms, that it no longer stood as the law of the Sunshine State.

The high court issued that ruling in response to a Citrus County case, in which a local judge had dismissed in keeping with the Standing Train Doctrine.

When the justices killed the doctrine, they gave new life to the Citrus lawsuit. Now, barring a last-minute settlement, a jury on Monday is scheduled to begin hearing Webster v. Florida Power Corp.

According to court records, the trouble started about 5 a.m. on Oct. 11, 1995.

It was dark, rainy and foggy. William L. Webster was driving southbound on County Road 495. Railroad tracks, the ones that lead to Florida Power's energy complex west of U.S. 19, were in the distance.

Webster was a half mile away from the tracks when he saw the signal crossing lights flashing. When he was about a quarter-mile away, the lights stopped flashing, the court records showed.

Webster increased his speed to 40 mph or 50 mph. He heard no train whistle. Then, when he was about 30 feet from the track, he spotted the train. It was moving on the track, after all. There was no gate or barricade.

Webster tried to stop, but it was too late. He struck the train's 90th car, the court records showed.

One year after the wreck, Webster sued several parties, eventually including Florida Power as a defendant. He sought more than $15,000 to compensate for medical bills and the various injuries he suffered in the wreck.

He said the utility, which owns the crossing signal, also was the "principal maintenance provider" for the signal. Florida Power said CSX Transportation held that distinction.

The trial judge dismissed the case pursuant to the Standing Train Doctrine. Webster didn't mind the other defendants getting a pass, but he did appeal the judge's ruling concerning Florida Power.

The legal theory in question entered Florida's legal lexicon in 1938, when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that drivers can't sue for damages involving standing trains or rail cars, news accounts showed.

The general idea is that trains themselves stood as warning enough for drivers.

Using that decision as a guideline, the high court expanded the theory during the next decade, saying a driver who struck a moving train was equally at fault, no matter what other factors were involved.

A Florida appeals court kept the line of reasoning alive through the early 1960s. After that, the Florida Supreme Court started giving more leeway for drivers who sued railroad companies.

Still, the Standing Train Doctrine remained good law. But then the 5th District Court of Appeal agreed with Webster, saying the doctrine was archaic.

Indeed, an Oklahoma appeals court had struck a similar part of law in that state. The Oklahoma court called it a "legal dinosaur."

When the appeals court found in Webster's favor, Florida Power appealed to the doctrine's original author: the Florida Supreme Court.

But today's justices disagreed with their predecessors, saying the doctrine was designed to protect the railroad industry. Better to allow juries to decide which party -- Florida Power or Webster -- is most at fault and then assign blame accordingly.

In pretrial documents, Florida Power has said the train that Webster struck had its headlights burning, horn blowing and bells ringing that fateful morning. Hours after the wreck, Florida Power says, a CSX employee tested the crossing signal and found it working fine. There was no history of problems.

The utility says Webster was negligent and failed to act responsibly. But Webster says Florida Power is to blame, since it failed to properly maintain the signal and keep the area safe.

Webster also says Florida Power knew of previous interruptions in power service at that safety crossing.

Webster said he injured his lower back and was advised, because of his chronic pain, to leave his job as a heating/air conditioning worker and find an occupation that is less physically taxing.

- This story includes information from Times files.

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