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Deboles v. National Railroad Passenger Corporation

United States District Court, D. Nevada

March 28, 2014



JAMES C. MAHAN, District Judge.

Presently before the court is defendant National Railroad Passenger Corporation d/b/a Amtrak's ("Amtrak") motion for summary judgment. (Doc. # 90). Plaintiffs Nathaniel and Mary Deboles filed a response in opposition (doc. # 94), and Amtrak filed a reply (doc. # 99).

Also before the court is defendant BNSF Railway Company's ("BNSF") motion for summary judgment. (Doc. # 91). Plaintiffs filed a response in opposition (doc. # 95), and BNSF filed a reply (doc. # 98).

I. Background

In the instant action, plaintiffs seek to recover damages based on injuries sustained by plaintiff Nathaniel Deboles when he was hit by an Amtrak passenger train.

On December 9, 2008, plaintiff Nathaniel Deboles was in the midst of a road trip from Las Vegas, Nevada to Arkansas. Early in the morning, Mr. Deboles encountered heavy snow and found himself stuck in unusually bad traffic on a desolate stretch of Highway 122 in New Mexico. After waiting for two hours at a near standstill, Mr. Deboles exited his car and sought privacy in order to urinate. Mr. Deboles walked away from the road, across two sets of train tracks to a snow-covered embankment thirty to forty yards to the north. After relieving himself, he began to walk back toward his car. As he walked back, he was forced to stop and wait for a freight train that was passing by on the southern track. While waiting for the train to pass, he stood within five feet of the northern track.

Unbeknownst to Mr. Deboles, an Amtrak passenger train was quickly barreling toward him at eighty-six miles-per-hour on the northern track. The engineers of this train have since stated that Mr. Deboles suddenly "appeared on the north side" of the track, at which time they blew the train's horn and applied the brakes. Despite these efforts, Mr. Deboles remained unaware of the impending danger and was struck by the train. As a result, Mr. Deboles' left hand was severed and he suffered a stroke, causing him permanent cognitive impairments.

The evidence on the record demonstrates that no more than ten seconds elapsed between the time the engineers first saw Mr. Deboles and the impact. The engineers, upon first seeing something near the tracks, thought it was an animal or a flock of birds. The train's emergency brakes were not activated until after the impact. Notably, there is no evidence that any other train accidents have ever taken place in the remote location where this incident occurred. This site is several miles from any developments or houses.

Plaintiffs put forward four claims in this matter. First, Mr. Deboles asserts a claim for premises liability against Amtrak based on the conduct of the engineers. Second, he argues that BNSF, the owner of the tracks, should be held liable based on the conduct of Amtrak's employees and for failing to place fences and post warnings about the danger of oncoming trains. In the final two causes of action, Mrs. Deboles brings claims for loss of household services and loss of spousal consortium against both defendants. The court will address each of these claims in turn.

II. Legal Standard

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide for summary adjudication when the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A principal purpose of summary judgment is "to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986).

In determining summary judgment, a court applies a burden-shifting analysis. "When the party moving for summary judgment would bear the burden of proof at trial, it must come forward with evidence which would entitle it to a directed verdict if the evidence went uncontroverted at trial. In such a case, the moving party has the initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of fact on each issue material to its case." C.A.R. Transp. Brokerage Co. v. Darden Rests., Inc., 213 F.3d 474, 480 (9th Cir. 2000) (citations omitted).

In contrast, when the nonmoving party bears the burden of proving the claim or defense, the moving party can meet its burden in two ways: (1) by presenting evidence to negate an essential element of the nonmoving party's case; or (2) by demonstrating that the nonmoving party failed to make a showing sufficient to establish an element essential to that party's case on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. See Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323-24. If the moving party fails to meet its initial burden, summary judgment must be denied and the court need not consider the nonmoving party's evidence. See Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 159-60 (1970).

If the moving party satisfies its initial burden, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to establish that a genuine issue of material fact exists. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). To demonstrate the existence of a factual dispute, the opposing party need not establish a material issue of fact conclusively in its favor. It is sufficient that "the claimed factual dispute be shown to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' ...

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