Court Dismisses Lawsuit Arising From Drunken Man’s Attempted Suicide by Train

In De Los Santos v. Long Island Railroad, plaintiff sought damages for personal injuries he sustained after he became drunk and attempted to commit suicide by laying down on the tracks in the path of a Long Island Railroad commuter train.

In perhaps one of the clearest cases of judicial understatement, the court observed that “[t]ragic consequences result when individuals who consume alcoholic beverages come into contact with railroad tracks traveled by speeding commuter trains.”

The court dismissed plaintiff’s complaint, finding as a matter of law that the train operator acted reasonably under the circumstances and that plaintiff’s drunkenness/recklessness operated as a superseding cause of his injuries.

As stated by the Court of Appeals, “a train operator may be found negligent if he or she sees a person on the tracks ‘from such a distance and under such other circumstances as to permit him [or her], in the exercise of reasonable care, to stop before striking the person.'”

In the case the court cited for this proposition, Soto v. NYCTA, the train operator offered several inconsistent versions of his conduct at the time of the accident and there was evidence that the train had stopped only after it made contact with the plaintiff.  On this evidence, the Soto court held that “there was a reasonable view of the evidence … that the train operator failed to use reasonable care in failing to see the plaintiff from a distance from which he should have seen him, and failed to employ emergenc[y] braking measures.”  These facts were not present here.

The court found analogous the 2008 Second Department case of Mirjah v NYCTA in which the court rejected, as speculative, expert testimony that the train operator should have been able to stop the train in time to avoid striking the decedent, which was based on the “average stopping time of drivers” to evaluate operator reaction.

Here, defendants met their initial summary judgment burden “of establishing that the train operator could not have avoided the accident, based upon the operator’s testimony at her deposition that she immediately ‘put the train into emergency’ upon seeing the plaintiff on the tracks, but could not stop the train in time to avoid the accident.”

In addition, the court rejected plaintiff’s argument that since he didn’t have the opportunity to depose additional witnesses the summary judgment motion was “premature” . The train operator testified that she told the train crew what happened; therefore, any of the train crew’s testimony regarding the accident would be based upon what she told them.  Also, plaintiff “failed to identify what information he hoped to discover at the depositions of the non-parties that would demonstrate that the train-operator caused or contributed to the happening of [the] accident.”

Furthermore, the court was not persuaded by the fact that plaintiff claimed not to recall how he ended up on the tracks:

While … a deceased or unconscious plaintiff is held to a lesser standard of proof, that does not relieve the plaintiff of the obligation to provide some proof from which negligence could reasonably be inferred. Here, there was no evidence of any fault on the part of the train operator other than mere speculation, which does not constitute proof from which negligence could reasonably be inferred. The Court rejects the efforts of plaintiff’s counsel to argue inconsistencies or gaps in the testimony of the train operator; that polemic fails to add any direct evidence of negligence on the part of the
defendants in opposition to their motion.

As a final point, the court noted that plaintiff’s recklessness cut off any liability, even assuming there was some negligence on defendants’ part:

The toxicology report of the defendants’ expert toxicologist indicates, based on blood drawn from the plaintiff at the hospital where he was taken following this accident, that his blood alcohol level was .198 and he had likely consumed over 8 drinks. As indicated in her report, ethanol is a central nervous system depressant. The hospital records also indicate that the plaintiff was intoxicated and depressed, and appeared to have attempted suicide by laying on his back between the railroad tracks of an oncoming train. While extremely sympathetic to the plaintiff’s situation, the evidence in this case demonstrates that the plaintiff disregarded the obvious danger posed by the train, and placed himself in a position of extreme peril. Even assuming, arguendo, that there was some negligence on the part of the defendants, the reckless conduct of the injured plaintiff constituted a superseding cause of the accident which absolved the defendant of any liability.

The court therefore granted defendants’ motion and dismissed plaintiff’s complaint.