(CN) - A jury must decide whether Union Railroad caused the death of an engineer and father who crashed into a train while conducting alone late at night, a federal judge ruled.
Andrew Monheim had been conducting a 50C northbound freight train pulling three locomotives, 41 empty slab cars and a caboose for Union Railroad Co. during the wee hours of March 16, 2010, when the accident occurred, according to the judgment.
Though Monheim was operating the lead car as the train left the Irvin Works rail yard, the crew planned to switch to a "shove move" to arrive at its destination several miles away, so that the caboose would become the lead car and push the train into the Edgar Thompson yard.
Monheim radioed the train movement director around 3:20 a.m., and shifted the throttle to a different position a couple minutes later, but there is no evidence about what happened during the next seven minutes.
Seconds after the train passed a red stop signal at 6 mph, it sideswiped a 76C train consisting of four locomotives, 90 cars filled with iron ore, and a caboose, at about 3:29 a.m.
Monheim's lifeless body was found hours later, buried in less than a foot of iron-ore pellets that had spilled out of the other train after the crash.
Evidence implies that Monheim remained fully conscious for two minutes after the crash.
It is unclear whether the three crew members in Monheim's caboose or the four employees operating the other train survived the crash.
Monheim's widow and administratrix of his estate, Lydia, sued the railroad for wrongful death on behalf of herself and their teenage son, who suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Asperger syndrome.
She alleges that the railroad violated the Federal Employers' Liability Act by not assigning an extra crewmember to the lead car with Monheim, and by configuring the train short-nose forward instead of long-nose forward.
Though the railroad challenged the evidence in support of the negligence and damages claims as insufficient, Chief U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti in Pittsburgh found that a jury must decide whether the railroad negligently ordered Monheim to operate the train alone.
"Just because the railroad was essentially doing what every other railroad was doing does not mean that the railroad was providing a reasonably safe workplace," Conti wrote on Jan. 24.
The judge later added: "There is ample evidence, both expert and lay, that by assigning Monheim to the locomotive alone that night, the railroad failed to use ordinary care under the circumstances or to do what a reasonably prudent railroad would have done under the circumstances to make the working environment reasonably safe."
Such evidence includes testimony from five of Monheim's former co-workers and two experts that a second crewmember is expected to be in a lead car for safety, and that the railroad knew or should have known that Monheim could become drowsy late at night, the ruling states.
"A reasonable jury can infer based upon the record presented that a second crewmember in the operational locomotive could have avoided the accident by reviving Monheim, operating the controls for him, contacting the train movement director, or other crewmembers, engaging the emergency break, or taking any combination of these actions," Conti wrote.
But the court rejected the claim that the train's configuration was "inherently dangerous."
"Monheim's former coworkers testified consistently that operating a locomotive short-nose forward provides increased visibility, and none identified any inherent danger in operating a locomotive short-nose forward," Conti wrote.
A jury will decide Monheim's widow's claims for conscious pain and suffering damages and loss-of-care on their son's behalf, according to the ruling.