A District Court of Harris County, Tex., jury has awarded $500 million in punitive damages and $57 million in compensatory damages to a woman, who according to court documents was intoxicated with a blood alcohol level 2.5 times the legal limit, was struck by a Union Pacific (UP) train at night, at a grade crossing with a functional warning system, in March 2016. She had been sitting on the tracks.
The jury found UP 80% liable and plaintiff Mary Johnson 20% liable in the 129th District case (No. 2016-80911). Johnson also sued the establishment that served her the alcohol.
According to the plaintiff’s third amended petition (download below), “Union Pacific’s engineer and conductor could have stopped the train before striking Plaintiff if the lights on the locomotive were bright enough to illuminate Plaintiff on the tracks 800 feet ahead as is required by federal law [49 CFR § 229.125].” Additionally, it said UP “failed to engage the train’s horn, have a headlamp, and/or apply the train’s emergency brakes in a proper manner to avoid the collision”; “Union Pacific’s train operators failed to take the safe course in this case when there was doubt and uncertainty about whether Ms. Johnson was a person on the tracks and whether Ms. Johnson was going to move on the tracks”; and “Failed to ensure that the railroad crossing warnings were working properly,” among other claims.
According to court documents in the public record, Johnson suffered multiple severe injuries, including brain injury and a leg amputation, as a result of the incident. At the hospital following the incident, she was found to have a BAC (blood alcohol concentration) of 0.201%.
“Union Pacific is deeply discouraged by the jury’s verdict,” the railroad told Railway Age. “The crossing’s lights, gates and bells were activated, and the crew blew the horn to herald the train’s approach. The train crew activated the emergency brakes when they discerned an individual seated on the tracks in the middle of the night. On average, it can take a train up to one mile to stop, and by the time a train crew spots someone on the tracks, it is often too late. Union Pacific will appeal the verdict, including the punitive damage award. Under Texas law, total punitive damages that can be awarded in this case are less than $20 million. We also want to remind everyone that railroad tracks are private property, and sitting, standing or walking on or near the tracks is dangerous.”