A federal judge has ruled a widow’s lawsuit against Union Pacific raises enough questions about the death of her husband in a collision with a commuter train that the case should proceed to trial.
U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow ruled against Union Pacific’s motion for summary judgment in the lawsuit brought in 2012 by plaintiff Christine M. Jones against the railroad and engineer Steven Pignato, alleging negligence, wrongful death and loss of consortium in the death of her husband, Timothy Jones, who was killed in 2010 when his car was struck by a Metra train at a railroad crossing in Des Plaines.
Jones filed the suit in Cook County Circuit Court in January 2012. Union Pacific then removed the case to federal court the month following.
According to court documents, on Aug. 4, 2010, Timothy Jones, of Hawthorn Woods, allegedly disregarded a no-left-turn signal at Miner Street and River Road, which is synchronized with the crossing’s signal system to prevent cars on Miner Street from entering the crossing when a train is coming. His car was struck in the crossing and he was killed.
In her lawsuit, Christine Jones argued Pignato, who was operating the train, should have sounded the train’s horn before entering the intersection. Pignato has said he did not see the car in the crossing until immediately before the impact. In her opinion, Lefkow notes that an eyewitness said Jones’ car was on the tracks for 5 to 10 seconds before impact raises a shadow of doubt as to whether Pignato should have seen the car and sounded the horn.
The lawsuit also argues the crossing signal was defective, and the gates did not come down. Union Pacific has produced two eyewitnesses – including the one who said the car was on the tracks for 5 to 10 seconds – who said the gates were down. But a third eyewitness, who was driving behind Timothy Jones in the left-turn lane on Miner Street, said he remembered seeing the gates come down while the train was in the crossing.
It has been theorized Jones struck the gate as he went around it, causing it to pop up, and the witness saw it descending for a second time. But in her opinion, Lefkow said determining the likelihood of that theory and weighing the credibility of the witnesses is a job for a jury.
“The court may not weigh conflicting evidence or make credibility determinations,” Lefkow wrote. “The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of proving there is no genuine issue of material fact.”
In addition to the witness testimony, Union Pacific’s case relies on data recorded at the scene. The train was equipped with a video camera that recorded the collision, and data recorders in the signal apparatus indicated the signals were working properly. The data recorder also indicated the gates were down for at least 25 seconds before the train entered the crossing, but Jones’ lawsuit claims that data was faked. She has also claimed the video from the scene had been altered. Both sides have produced expert witnesses to bolster their arguments as to the authenticity of the recordings.
Lefkow set a status hearing for the case on Sept. 29, with the intention of setting a trial date at that time. She instructed both parties to explore a potential settlement before that date.
Jones is represented in the case by the Warner Law Firm, of Park Ridge, and Meihofer, Long & Couture, of Chicago.
Union Pacific is represented by in-house counsel and the firm of Thompson Coburn, with offices in St. Louis and Belleville.