Alleged Legal System Failure: RR Crossing

Alleged Legal System Failure: RR Crossing

My sister, in the early 1970’s, had to sit as a juror in a case where a family brought a lawsuit against a railroad company. This took place in the city of Riverside, California. Two young male teens died at a railroad crossing. One of the young men owned a motor scooter and let his friend ride on the scooter with him, which is against the motor vehicle laws, therefore illegal. The scooter was designed for one person only. For some reason, which will never be known, the scooter-driver drove into the ‘side’ of the train engine at the railroad crossing and both teens were killed by the impact. It was not a front-end-of-engine impact.

The family believed that the railroad crossing protection against such accidents might not have functioned properly. I remember that my sister told me that any juror that knew electronics was excused, could not serve as a juror. I thought this rather odd.

After the trial was over my sister told me that the railroad company spokes person said the system was foolproof and spent a lot of time describing how and why it was foolproof. She then went on to describe, as best as she could, how the system worked to me. Her description was cursory but having training in electronics I spotted a number of factors that could be problem points for the system to be “flawless”. It occurred to me, at that time, why the defense lawyer might want a jury pool to be sanitized from any intellectual capacity to understand the nuances of electronics. The sanitation may have worked in favor for the rail road company, if the trial was allowed to run through its planned length — but for some reason known only to the judge, attorneys, railroad and family, the trial was declared a mistrial after a month-long trial period in the courtroom. The jury was not told why a mistrial was declared. For the jury, the hardest conclusion to arrive at was a choice between: 1) did the crossing ‘alarm’ fail and/or did the engineer forget to blow the train whistle, or, 2) did the young driver try to beat the train at the crossing and misjudge the speed of the train and the ‘slowness’ of his scooter with the (illegal) passenger on the back, over-estimating his horse power and timing at that moment.

A few years later I had to pick up my sister and she asked if a young man could also be driven home. I was driving, my sister sat in the front passenger seat, and the young man took a back seat in the car. We asked him where he lived and when he told us where his home was, my sister told him about a trial she participated in that involved a railroad crossing near this young man’s home. As we drove, the young man then told us that the community had continuous problems with that railroad crossing not functioning properly.  I could see out of the corner of my eye that my sister was shaken. After we dropped off the fellow at his house, my sister told me that she still felt confused and conflicted about the trial. She told me about how convincing the expert was who testified about how flawless the railroad crossing device was. The jury was told that the railroad company sent out THEIR inspectors to detect any problems but found none. We both felt that the lawyer, for the family, only needed to walk the area around the crossing to get a feel if there was a recordable level of malfunction with the crossing. My sister did not know if that was done.  At the trial, some testimony was presented by a couple of residents in the area explaining that there were a few problems with the crossing. The ‘neighborhood’ testimony was not ‘strong’ because people had to try and recall when and how that they had seen problems at the crossing, time of day, train whistle heard, or not, etc. — which is difficult when you do not have an accident or specific incident to magnify the memory associated with observed ‘problems.’

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