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Soo Line Railroad Co. v. Werner Enterprises

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

June 7, 2016

Soo Line Railroad Company, a Minnesota corporation, doing business as Canadian Pacific Plaintiff- Appellant
Werner Enterprises Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: October 22, 2015

         Appeal from United States District Court for the District of Minnesota - Minneapolis

          Before WOLLMAN, BYE, and GRUENDER, Circuit Judges.[1]

          WOLLMAN, Circuit Judge.

         A truck driven by a Werner Enterprises (Werner) employee struck a train operated by Soo Line Railroad Company, doing business as Canadian Pacific (Canadian Pacific), causing a tanker car to spill the chemical it was carrying. Canadian Pacific sued Werner for the clean-up costs under theories of trespass, nuisance, and negligence. The district court[2] granted summary judgment to Werner on the trespass and nuisance claims, and the case proceeded to trial on the negligence claim. The jury returned a verdict for Werner, and the district court denied Canadian Pacific's motion for judgment as a matter of law or for a new trial. Canadian Pacific appeals, arguing that the district court erred in granting summary judgment on its trespass and nuisance claims, in denying its motion for summary judgment, in denying its post-trial motion, and in instructing the jury.[3] We affirm.


         At approximately 3:20 a.m. on March 31, 2012, Dale Buzzell was driving a Werner-owned truck northbound on U.S. Highway 59 toward Plummer, Minnesota. At the same time, a train operated by Canadian Pacific, which consisted of some 106 cars and a head-end and a trailing locomotive, was in the process of switching from one track to another in order to make room for another train headed in the opposite direction. The track that the train was switching to intersected with Highway 59. As the train approached the intersection, it was traveling at approximately five miles per hour to the southeast, and its engineer sounded the train's horn multiple times to signal the train's presence at the intersection. The intersection was equipped with crossing-guard signals, which began flashing as the train approached the intersection, and the locomotive was equipped with two sets of headlights that illuminated the area ahead of the train for approximately one-half mile.

         South of the highway-railroad intersection, Highway 59 curves slightly to the right for northbound drivers and straightens out approximately 535 feet from the intersection. Buzzell successfully navigated the curve leading to the railroad crossing, but did not slow down after the curve. He struck the ninth car of the train at approximately fifty-five miles per hour, derailing the train and puncturing the tanker car, which spilled aromatic concentrate (a 50% benzene solution) on the ground. Buzzell's truck caught fire, causing Buzzell to die from smoke inhalation.

         Emergency responders extinguished the fire using chemical foam and water. The train's engineer, conductor, and a superintendent for Canadian Pacific testified that they observed skid marks leading up to the intersection, indicating that Buzzell had attempted to swerve to avoid the collision. State police completed a fatality report and an accident reconstruction report. The reconstruction report noted no skid marks or other evidence that Buzzell had attempted to avoid the collision. Dr. Mark Koponen, the medical examiner who performed Buzzell's autopsy, concluded that he died from smoke inhalation soon after the collision. The autopsy further revealed that Buzzell's heart exhibited signs that a blood clot had obstructed the blood flow in Buzzell's right coronary artery, which indicated the beginning stages of a heart attack. Dr. Koponen testified that the blood clot occurred before the collision and that it could have caused Buzzell to become incapacitated, but that he might not have experienced symptoms before becoming incapacitated. After ruling out other possible causes of the accident, including the possibility that the truck had experienced a mechanical failure, that Buzzell had committed suicide, or that Buzzell had been distracted or had fallen asleep, Dr. Koponen concluded that the "totality of the evidence" indicated that the collision was caused by Buzzell's experiencing "an acute cardiac event which led to his inability to control his motor vehicle."

         Canadian Pacific incurred costs of $7.76 million in cleaning the hazardous materials from the accident site. After Werner refused a request for indemnification, Canadian Pacific brought suit, alleging that Werner was vicariously liable for the damages caused by Buzzell's negligence and directly liable for its negligent supervision and retention of Buzzell. Canadian Pacific later amended its complaint to include nuisance and trespass claims.

         Before the parties completed discovery, Canadian Pacific moved for summary judgment on all of its claims, arguing that Buzzell violated state traffic laws requiring drivers to yield to trains at a crossing and that the state-law violation constituted per se negligence. The district court denied the motion, holding that violations of state traffic laws are only prima facie evidence of negligence and that genuine disputes of material fact remained with respect to each of Canadian Pacific's claims. At the close of discovery, Werner moved for summary judgment on all claims, arguing that Canadian Pacific had not presented evidence sufficient to satisfy all of the necessary elements of its trespass and nuisance claims and that Werner's evidence that Buzzell was medically incapacitated at the time of the accident was sufficient to defeat Canadian Pacific's negligence claim. Canadian Pacific responded that Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations promulgated under authority granted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act of 1984 § 206 (FMCSA), 49 U.S.C. § 31136, preempted Werner's state-law sudden-incapacitation defense. The district court granted Werner's motion on the nuisance and trespass claims and denied Werner's motion with respect to the negligence claim. It rejected Canadian Pacific's preemption argument, but concluded that there remained a genuine dispute over whether Buzzell was negligent.

         The parties did not dispute the amount of damages, so the trial was limited to the issue of liability. Canadian Pacific proceeded on its claim that Buzzell was negligent in his driving and in his failure to report fatigue to his DOT-licensing physician. Both Werner and Canadian Pacific introduced expert testimony, with Werner's experts supporting the sudden-incapacitation defense and Canadian Pacific's experts concluding that it was impossible to rule out alternative explanations, such as driver fatigue or distraction.

         The parties also disputed the significance of Buzzell's medical records, which included a diagnosis of "fatigue" in his primary care doctor's progress notes from August 13, 2010, September 2010, and December 2011; lab results from a blood test ordered because of the fatigue diagnosis; a list of medications indicating that Buzzell took vitamin supplements for fatigue; and rehabilitation-center progress notes from January 2012 noting that Buzzell had difficulty sleeping on his left side because of pain in his left shoulder. None of Buzzell's medical records, however, indicated that Buzzell had been diagnosed with a sleep disorder, nor did they provide context for whether his fatigue diagnosis affected his ability to drive. Canadian Pacific introduced a medical questionnaire from Buzzell's August 3, 2010, DOT-required driver-fitness examination, in which Buzzell indicated that he did not experience fainting, dizziness, "sleep disorders, pauses in breathing while asleep, daytime sleepiness, [or] loud snoring." Canadian Pacific presented testimony from an occupational medical physician, who testified that Buzzell violated federal regulations by failing to report to the DOT that his primary care physician diagnosed him with fatigue on August 13, 2010, and that Buzzell violated the regulations by denying having a sleep disorder during his driver-fitness medical examination with a DOT physician ten days earlier. Werner presented testimony challenging the accuracy of Buzzell's medical records, highlighting that they did not provide context for whether his fatigue diagnosis affected his ability to drive, and asserting that Buzzell's fatigue diagnosis did not constitute a sleep disorder.

         The jury indicated on its special verdict form that Buzzell was not negligent in operating his truck and that he was not "negligent in failing to report fatigue to his [DOT]-licensing physician and to Werner Enterprises."

         Canadian Pacific then moved for judgment as a matter of law or for a new trial, arguing that Werner had not presented sufficient evidence to support its sudden-incapacitation defense, that the evidence permitted only the conclusion that Buzzell negligently failed to report a fatigue diagnosis, and that the district court had improperly denied its per se negligence instruction ...

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