California Court Denies Summary Judgment for Defendants When Plaintiff Shows Triable Issue of Fact Regarding Whether Train Operator was Employed by Defendants

In a recent unpublished opinion, the California Court of Appeal reversed a judgment and remanded a case in which the defendants had been granted summary judgment on the issue of the negligent operation of a train by an employetraine. The defendants, two public entities, argued that the train engineer was an independent contractor and that they could not be vicariously liable for his actions.

On appeal, the court addressed whether there was a triable issue of material fact regarding the dual employment of the train operator. The appellate court also analyzed whether the plaintiff’s premises liability claim had been properly adjudicated in favor of the defendants.

In February 2011, the decedent was riding his horse on railroad tracks, southbound, in Pacoima. He opted to take a railroad bridge, rather than the larger road that crossed the Tujunga Wash.  As he was riding across the bridge, near the southern end, both he and the horse were struck and killed by a train. On behalf of the deceased, his survivors brought this lawsuit.

Evidence showed that the train engineer worked for Amtrak. The engineer of the train provided a declaration supporting the defendants’ summary judgment motion that stated he sounded the train horn and bell and began slowing the train when saw an object on the tracks ahead of him.  Once he realized the man and the horse were not off the tracks, he used the emergency brake. Nevertheless, the train fatally struck the man and the horse.

The defendants included two public entities:  the owner of the property where the incident took place and the owner of the railroad tracks. Together, they moved for summary judgment on multiple grounds, including that the locomotive engineer had not been their employee. The trial court granted summary judgment, and the plaintiffs appealed.

The plaintiffs had asserted the defendants’ liability under Government Code section 815.2 for negligent operation of the train by an employee.  The defendants argued that the train operator was in fact an independent contractor.

Under the Government Claims Act, public entities can be liable only as provided by statute.  Section 815.2 holds that public entities may be liable for injuries proximately caused by employees when acting within the scope of their employment.  The Act further states that employees are not independent contractors.

The issue before the appellate court was whether the train operator could be deemed  an employee, under common law. A special or dual employment relationship may be found when the “general” employer lends an employee to another employer and relinquishes the right of control of the employee’s activities.  While this period of transferred control takes place, the special employer is solely liable for the employee’s conduct under respondeat superior.

In addition to the right of control, the court stated there are other factors that determine whether an employer-employee relationship exists.  The court listed those factors, including whether the kind of work is usually done by a specialist, the skill that the particular occupation requires, whether the worker or the principal supplies the tools, the method of payment, and other factors.

In this situation, the court stated that the plaintiffs raised a triable issue of fact regarding whether the train operator was a special or dual employee of one or both defendants.  While the train operator may have worked for Amtrak, there was the possibility that he was also employed by both defendants.  One defendant, the owner of the railroad tracks, had more control over the train operator’s work activities. He had been required to train on their rules and was required to abide by their operating rules, since they set the train schedule with which he complied.  Additionally, the court stated the services the train operator provided were not distinct from the general activities conducted by the railroad track owner in transporting passengers.

The totality of this evidence did not make clear whether the train operator was employed by the defendants under Government Code section 815.2, but it did show a triable issue of fact.  The trial court erred, according to the appellate court, by ruling in favor of the defendants.

The plaintiffs also alleged that the railroad bridge where the accident took place was impermissibly dangerous, and they asserted a cause of action for premises liability.  But the court stated that the standard of care that the plaintiffs attempted to impose was for landowners, rather than public entities.  Public entities can only be liable for injuries caused by a dangerous condition by statute, according to the Government Code.

When a plaintiff shows that a property was dangerous at the time of the injury, and the injury was caused by the dangerous condition, which created a reasonably foreseeable risk of an injury of the kind incurred, and the public entity knew or should have known of the injury in time to protect against it, they may be liable.

Regarding whether a property constitutes a dangerous condition, the court stated that it is a question of fact, but it may be decided by law if no reasonable person could conclude the definition of a dangerous condition has been met.

Obvious, apparent hazards may preclude a finding of foreseeable use of property with due care. The court stated that railroad tracks are an “open and obvious danger,” and in the accident site at issue, there was a narrow bridge, intended only for railroad use.  Here, the danger on the tracks was apparent. Traveling across railroad tracks on a bridge is particularly dangerous because a person on railroad tracks can step to the side to avoid being struck by a train, but on a bridge there is only one direction for escape.

The court stated that the plaintiffs had the burden of establishing the railroad bridge could foreseeably be used by a person exercising due care. Here, crossing a bridge meant only for railroad use is not something that could be the use of due care, particularly when the bridge is located next to a regular traffic bridge. The court stated that the use of the bridge to cross the wash was not an exercise of due care.

At Sharifi Firm, we represent survivors in actions for wrongful death to seek damages from the responsible party.  Throughout Southern California, we have helped families of deceased accident victims.  Set up a free consultation with a skilled attorney today by calling 1-866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

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California Court Affirms Judgment in Favor of City Because Injured Plaintiff Had Not Sufficiently Pled Facts Showing City’s Duty to Light Crosswalk, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, August 18, 2016

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