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Pennsylvania Appellate Court Holds Railroad’s and Engineer’s “Only Duty” to Trespassing Child Near Tracks Was to Avoid Willful or Wanton Misconduct

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently upheld summary judgment in favor of a railroad company and a railroad engineer in a personal injury lawsuit involving a trespassing child.  In this case, the appellate court reviewed the evidence before the trial court and specifically focused on the plaintiffs’ allegations that the defendants’ conduct was in willful and wanton disregard for the safety of the injured child.  The court stated the rule that the duty owed to a trespasser is to avoid willful and wanton misconduct, and in this case, there was no evidence of that behavior by the defendants.

At the time of the trial, Destiny Gresart was a minor, and her mother Dedra Gresart (“The Gresarts”) brought a lawsuit on her daughter’s behalf, and in her own right, against Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad, Genesee & Wyoming, Inc. (together, “Railroad”), and James Murdock, a railroad engineer.  On August 18, 2004, Destiny, seven years old, snuck out of her house to find her sister, who had gone to a store with a friend.  While walking on the train tracks located near the Grant Street crossing in Johnsonburg, Destiny was struck by the snow plow of Railroad’s train, which was operated by Mr. Murdock.

While the train approached the crossing, it had been traveling at or below 25 miles per hour and therefore within the speed limit.  The crossing’s flashing lights were active, and there was a clearly marked “no trespassing” sign.  The train crew saw Destiny about 250 feet ahead and immediately applied the emergency brake.  Destiny was struck by the locomotive about 253 feet west of the Grant Street crossing.  She suffered severe injuries due to the accident.

The Gresarts brought an action against Railroad, alleging negligence on the part of Railroad and Mr. Murdock, and alleging that the tracks were an attractive nuisance. (This last part of the claim was not before the appellate court.)  The Railroad moved for summary judgment on the grounds that Destiny trespassed and that the Railroad owed a duty only to refrain from willful and wanton misconduct.

After denying the Gresarts’ motion to file a third amended complaint, the court also granted Railroad’s motion for summary judgment.  The Gresarts appealed.

On the allegation that she was improperly denied leave to file a third amended complaint, the appellate court stated that since Destiny was a minor at the time of the accident, the statute of limitations had not expired on her claims.  Additionally, Ms. Gresart was not trying to add a new cause of action but trying to amplify her existing negligence claims with allegations of willful and wanton misconduct.  These claims would support an award of punitive damages.  However, the appellate court stated that the record did not support a claim for punitive damages because a defendant must have acted “in reckless disregard of the safety of another.” Here, the Gresarts were unable to show either Railroad or Mr. Murdock acted with willful or wanton disregard for Destiny’s safety.  The trial court properly denied the motion to amend the complaint to include the punitive damages allegations.

Regarding the granting of the motion for summary judgment, the appellate court stated they may only disturb the record when it is shown the court committed an error of law or abused its discretion.  The appellate court must determine whether the record shows that the material facts are undisputed or that the facts do not make out a sufficient cause of action.  In this case, the Gresarts conceded that Destiny was trespassing when she was struck by the Railroad’s train. The Gresarts acknowledged the legal obligation to trespassers is to avoid willful or wanton misconduct.  The Gresarts contended that there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Railroad and Mr. Murdock acted with reckless disregard of a known risk.

In order to survive summary judgment, the Gresarts must have shown that Railroad and Mr. Murdock acted or failed to act in a way that constituted willful or wanton misconduct.  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that willful misconduct is when the actor desires the result that follows, or is aware it is substantially certain to ensue.  Recklessly disregarding the existing danger means that the actor realizes or has knowledge of the existing danger and fails to act.  Furthermore, the appellate court stated that case law has held that willful and wanton conduct exists when the danger is realized and disregarded such that there is a willingness to injure, if not the intent to injure.

The appellate court reviewed the record concerning the Gresarts’ claim that Mr. Murdock could have seen and should have seen Destiny from a distance of 600 feet away, and therefore he could have stopped in time.  The trial court had rejected the Gresarts’ allegation that signage or a fence near the crossing was inadequate.  The appellate court reiterated that as an admitted trespasser, the “only duty” owed to Destiny was to avoid willful or wanton misconduct.

Here, the appellate court stated there was no evidence that Railroad or its employees were aware of the presence of trespassers on the tracks and recklessly disregarded the danger.  The court stated there were no grounds to disturb the lower court’s ruling that the Gresarts failed to show evidence of Railroad’s or Mr. Murdock’s willful and wanton misconduct to survive the summary judgment motion.  The order was affirmed on appeal.

At Needle Law, our Pennsylvania train accident lawyers provide guidance and representation to injured individuals seeking to recover compensation for their losses from a train accident. We understand that train accidents may include a variety of causes, from human negligence to defective train equipment.  Contact our office for a free consultation by calling570-344-1266 or via the online form.

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