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National Railroad Passenger Corporation v. McDavitt

July 25, 2002


Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, (CA 8995-96) (Hon. Leonard Braman, Trial Judge)

Before Steadman, Ruiz and Glickman, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Glickman, Associate Judge

Argued September 28, 2000

Ray E. McDavitt filed a complaint under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. §§ 51-60, against the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) for negligence after he was injured in a train derailment in the Washington Terminal coach yard near Union Station in the District of Columbia. Amtrak denied fault and blamed McDavitt for the accident. The case was tried to a jury, which found Amtrak negligent and McDavitt contributorily negligent. Apportioning liability under FELA's comparative negligence framework, the jury found two-thirds of McDavitt's damages attributable to Amtrak's negligence and the remaining one-third McDavitt's own responsibility. The jury put a value of $975,000 on McDavitt's damages; it evidently credited McDavitt's evidence that he was permanently and totally disabled by the injuries he sustained in the derailment. In accordance with the jury's allocation of responsibility, the trial judge reduced the total damages by one-third and entered judgment for McDavitt in the amount of $650,325.

Amtrak contends on appeal that the trial judge erred in denying its motions during and after trial for judgment as a matter of law or for a new trial, in making certain rulings on evidence, and in giving certain instructions to the jury. We affirm the judgment against Amtrak on the issue of liability, including the allocation to Amtrak of responsibility for two-thirds of McDavitt's damages. As to the determination of those damages, however, we reverse and remand the case for a new trial.


Amtrak claims that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on McDavitt's negligence claims under FELA because there was no legally sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that Amtrak breached any applicable standard of care. See Super. Ct. Civ. R. 50 (a)(1). In evaluating such a claim on appeal, we apply the same strict legal standard as a trial court does in ruling on the motion in the first instance. We must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party (here, McDavitt), and give that party the benefit of every reasonable inference. See Vuitch v. Furr, 482 A.2d 811, 813 (D.C. 1984). "The court must take care to avoid weighing the evidence, passing on the credibility of witnesses or substituting its judgment for that of the jury." Corley v. BP Oil Corp., 402 A.2d 1258, 1263 (D.C. 1979). If "the case turns on controverted facts and the credibility of witnesses, the case is peculiarly one for the jury." Id. (quoting Aylor v. Intercounty Constr. Corp., 127 U.S. App. D.C. 151, 155, 381 F.2d 930, 934 (1967)). Judgment as a matter of law is proper only if the evidence is so clear that a reasonable jury could fairly come to but one conclusion. Id.


On the afternoon of May 2, 1996, someone in the Amtrak control tower at Washington Terminal, known as "K-Tower," radioed permission to locomotive engineer Ray McDavitt to move his Virginia Railway Express (VRE) train number 323 from the coach yard south into Union Station. The VRE train was parked on track 4e adjacent to "dwarf" signal 491 (so called because the signal was only two and a half feet high), and its authorization to proceed was contingent "on signal indication." This meant that the engineer, McDavitt, needed to wait until signal 491 changed from "stop" (two horizontal red lights) to "slow clear" (two vertical green lights) before he could embark.

McDavitt testified that over the next few minutes he leaned out of the locomotive cab four times to check signal 491. The first three times the signal was still red, and he did not move. The fourth time he checked it, McDavitt said, the signal had turned green, and he set the train in motion. Moving south on track 4e at approximately thirteen miles per hour, VRE 323 passed through several switches, including one - identified as switch 482 - that was aligned against the train's movement. Although the conflicting alignment of this switch would have been visible from the cab of his locomotive, McDavitt did not notice it as he arguably should have and did not apply the brakes. The train broke the switch and rolled on until it arrived at switch number 472, some 537 feet from its starting point at signal 491. Unlike the earlier switches that VRE 323 had encountered, number 472 was a derail switch, designed to prevent collisions between trains traveling on conflicting routes by derailing one of them. Switch number 472 also was aligned against McDavitt's southward movement on track 4e. McDavitt again did not notice the misalignment as he approached the switch. His train derailed and traveled another ninety-two feet before it braked to a stop. McDavitt was thrown about in the cab and injured.

At the time of this accident, signal 491 and the switches on track 4e were part of an integrated, computerized system for controlling the movement of trains at Washington Terminal. Amtrak personnel located in K-Tower operated this system, communicating with trains by radio and assigning tracks and routes by means of an enter/exit, or "NX," machine. The layout of K-Tower and the appearance and operation of the NX machine were shown to the jury in photographs and videotapes that McDavitt and Amtrak each offered in evidence.

Fifteen feet in length, the NX machine had a lower and an upper panel. The lower panel was a control panel displaying a diagram of the tracks with lights, buttons and switches. To establish a train route in the terminal, such as a route for McDavitt's train into Union Station, an operator would push a button at the train's designated starting point, such as signal 491 in this case. The panel would light up to show all available routes from that point - routes not in conflict with those already assigned to other trains or for other purposes. The operator then would select a particular route from those available by pushing a button at the intended exit point on that route, such as McDavitt's intended destination in Union Station. The NX machine would align the switches on the selected route, taking into account any established delay periods for alignment changes, and then - after all the switches were aligned properly - change the signals on the route to permit the train to proceed. The progress of the train then would be displayed on the upper panel, an electrical "model board" of the tracks, by lights along each track that would change from white to red as the train moved past each signal on its path. Any train moving through the terminal area would show up on the board, even if it was moving without having first received a designated route or permission from K-Tower to proceed.

As designed, the NX machine would not establish conflicting routes. It would not change a signal from red to green until after all switches on the route were aligned. Furthermore, built-in delays ensured that if a signal were to turn red after a train passed it by, the switches on the route would remain aligned with the train's movement through them for two to two-and-a-half minutes - enough time for the train to get safely through the route, given the short distances involved in the terminal area. In other words, the integrated signal and switch system was designed so that signal 491 should not have turned green to permit McDavitt to move VRE 323 until all the switches ahead of him on track 4e were aligned in his favor. Once that happened and signal 491 changed to allow McDavitt to go, the switches should have remained aligned in his favor for at least two minutes even if signal 491 changed back to red or K-Tower established a conflicting route after he departed. If, therefore, McDavitt saw a green signal as he said he did, and if the system was functioning as designed, the accident should not have been possible. Either McDavitt testified untruthfully (as Amtrak contended) or the system malfunctioned.

If there was a system malfunction, it evidently had to do with signal 491 prematurely turning green by itself, because the NX operators in K-Tower still were waiting for another train to complete its travel on a conflicting route and had not yet established a route for VRE 323 to follow from signal 491. Amtrak investigators who examined the relay box switches after the derailment confirmed that K-Tower had not sent an electronic impulse to signal 491 to cause it to turn green. Yet when the investigators tested signal 491 and placed a twenty-four hour watch on it, they found nothing wrong with it. *fn1 McDavitt, too, offered no evidence that signal 491 was defective, nor any explanation of why it turned green for him. Over Amtrak's objection, McDavitt did present evidence that other signals in the integrated system controlled from K-Tower had turned red or green for no apparent reason on two earlier occasions. This evidence was not offered or admitted to prove that signal 491 malfunctioned, however, but only to show that Amtrak was on notice that it might need to take reasonable precautions against such mishaps.

McDavitt testified that after he saw Signal 491 turn green, he announced to his conductor that "VRE 323 has a slow clear out of the yard. Here we go." The conductor testified that he was "70 to 80 percent" sure that he heard this message over the radio, and he "believe[d]" that K-Tower ordinarily listened to such communications. None of the K-Tower personnel acknowledged having heard McDavitt's announcement, however, and if he made it, no one responded to it. Amtrak's train director, Daniel Moffitt, who was in charge of K-Tower operations and working there at the time of the derailment, testified that K-Tower monitored the Amtrak road channel and "most likely" would have heard McDavitt if he had radioed that VRE 323 was about to move. Although K-Tower also listened to other radio channels, and there was sometimes interference, the Amtrak road channel was set at a higher volume than the others. [Id. at 127] Moffitt added that he personally spent "a lot of [his] time talking on the Amtrak road channel." [Id. at 127] An assistant train director who was working with Moffitt in K-Tower agreed that a radio message from McDavitt could have been heard there. She also confirmed that if McDavitt's message had been heard, the train director could have communicated with him immediately by radio and told him to stop.

Over the next thirty-six seconds, as measured by an on-board event recorder, VRE 323 proceeded down track 4e toward its rendezvous with the derail switch. During that span of time, red lights lit up sequentially on the upper panel of the NX machine, displaying the train's progress. Moffitt saw that these red lights were still lit after the accident. He acknowledged that if he had noticed the red lights when they went on, he "probably" would have known at once that it was McDavitt's VRE train, and "absolutely" would have done something, such as radio McDavitt, to stop his unauthorized movement.

McDavitt testified that he could have braked the train to a halt in five seconds at the thirteen mile per hour speed it was traveling. From the time VRE 323 left signal 491, therefore, there was a window of approximately half a minute in which someone in K-Tower might have prevented the derailment by ordering McDavitt to stop. No one made that call. No one in K-Tower admitted to having seen the movement of McDavitt's train reflected in the red lights on the upper panel of the NX machine. Along with Moffitt, there were four other Amtrak employees working in K-Tower, all of them generally facing the NX machine. Two of these ...

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