South Carolina Jury Should Have Been Instructed Concerning Lack of Presumption of Intoxication for .018% BAC in Train-Car Collision – Stephens v. CSX Transportation, Inc.

The right to a jury trial is very important to our civil justice system. That said, jury trials can be complex and lengthy because of all of the procedural safeguards that are in place to make sure that the jury, presumably made up of laymen, considers only admissible evidence and is instructed accurately concerning the law.

It is not uncommon for appellate courts to review jury verdicts on appeal and come to the conclusion that the trial judge tainted the jury by an erroneous ruling or instruction. When this happens, the case must be remanded for a new trial, basically starting the process anew.

Facts of the Case

In the case of Stephens v. CSX Transportation, Inc., the plaintiff was the guardian ad litem of a minor child who suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of a collision between a train and an automobile in which the child was riding. The accident occurred at a passive-grade crossing in the town of Yemassee, South Carolina in Hampton County.  There were no lights or gates at the crossing, only a stop sign, a stop line, and a “Railroad Crossing” sign.

At the time of the accident, the child was the back seat passenger in her mother’s car. Her mother testified that she stopped at the stop sign and pulled forward to the stop line, but she claimed that she did not see or hear the train until she drove onto the track.

The guardian filed suit against the owner of the train, alleging that the train operator had failed to sound the train’s horn at the right time and had neglected to remove trees and vegetation that obstructed the mother’s view of the track. The guardian also named the state department of transportation as a defendant in the suit, averring that it had failed to properly inspect the crossing and had installed the stop sign and stop line in the wrong places.

The case was tried to a jury, which found in favor of the defendants. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s order in the defendants’ favor.

On Appeal to the South Carolina Supreme Court

On further appeal, the supreme court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded the case for a new trial. With regard to the guardian’s argument that he should have received a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), the supreme court found that the court of appeals had correctly ruled that the guardian’s failure to renew his motion for a directed verdict after his offer of rebuttal evidence precluded him from requesting a JNOV.

The supreme court agreed with the lower appellate court with regard to certain jury instructions that the lower court had provided, finding that the lower court had committed reversible error in restricting its analysis to jury charges related to the defendants’ alleged breach of the duty of reasonable care. According to the court, there were other instructions that should have been considered. Since these instructions were erroneous and may have tainted the jury’s consideration of the issues, the court found that the guardian was entitled to a new trial.

Specifically, the trial court should not have instructed the jury that “it is always train time at a railroad crossing,” nor should it have issued certain confusing instructions concerning the distance at which the mother should have stopped her car prior to crossing the tracks. Furthermore, given the mother’s blood alcohol content of .018%, the court found that the trial court should have instructed the jury not only on the criminal statute involving driving under the influence but also on another statute that would have shown that, given the relatively low level of alcohol in the mother’s blood, there was no presumption that she was impaired at the time of the accident.

To Speak to an Experienced South Carolina Injury Lawyer

Being involved in a motor vehicle collision or other accident can be one of life’s most stressful events. It helps to know that an experienced, assertive attorney is on your side of the case, fighting for your right to maximum compensation for your injuries. To schedule an appointment with a knowledgeable South Carolina car accident attorney, call the Law Offices of Patrick E. Knie at 864-582-5118 and ask for a free consultation. We accept cases throughout South Carolina and have offices located in Greenville and Spartanburg.

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