Thursday, February 9, 2017
Court Revives Suit Against Metrolink Over Equestrian’s Death on Railroad Bridge
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The family of a man who was killed when he and his horse were struck by a Metrolink train in 2011 has a viable negligence claim against the agency, based on evidence that the engineer who allegedly caused the crash should be considered an employee and not an independent contractor, this district’s Court of Appeal has ruled.
Retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Alan Goodman authored the unpublished opinion for Div. Two, where he is sitting by assignment. Goodman said the family of Jose Jesus Hidalgo offered substantial evidence that the engineer, officially an Amtrak employee, was a special or dual employee of Metrolink, formally the Southern California Regional Rail Authority.
The crash occurred in while Hidalgo was riding his horse southbound on railroad tracks in Pacoima. The tracks cross the Tujunga Wash on a narrow railroad bridge, and Hidalgo was struck riding on the bridge.
The 35-year-old equestrian was spotted on the tracks, mounted and trying to get his horse to move, but the animal stood still as the commuter train bore down on him, witnesses and the coroner’s spokesperson told the Los Angeles Daily News at the time. Hidalgo and his horse were killed almost instantly.
The engineer, in a declaration supporting Metrolink’s motion for summary judgment, said he sounded the horn as he approached, then sounded the horn and bell when he spotted an object, which he later realized was a man on a horse. He employed the emergency brake, but the train struck and killed the rider and the horse.
A defense expert opined that the engineer operated the train at an appropriate speed, used the horn and bell correctly, and made appropriate efforts to stop the train before impact. The plaintiffs responded that the tracks should have been fenced, given the presence of transients, shopping carts, bicycles, trash, and graffiti in the area.
As for the employee/independent contractor issue, it was established that the engineer was an Amtrak employee working for Metrolink under a contract between the agencies. But the plaintiffs contended there were substantial indicia of an employment relationship with Metrolink as well, since the engineer was trained by Metrolink, operated on a Metrolink schedule, and was supervised by Metrolink.
The plaintiffs also noted that Metrolink reimbursed Amtrak for the engineer’s pay and expenses and had some approval rights as to which Amtrak employees worked for it under the contract.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Donna Fields Goldstein granted summary judgment, finding the employment issue dispositive as to the plaintiffs’ negligence cause of action based on vicarious liability, and that a cause of action for negligent hiring, retention, and supervision was preempted by federal law.
Goodman, however, said the first cause of action was viable based on the plaintiff’s evidence. Under common law, he explained, a dual or special employment relationship may be found based on the right of control, or on other factors such as the nature of the work, who supplies the instrumentalities or tools to do the job, the length of time the services are to be performed, and the method of payment.
In this case, the jurist said, the level of control by Metrolink, the fact that it supplied the train, and the apparent expectation that the engineer was going to work for Metrolink for a long time would allow a reasonable trier of fact to find that he was a Metrolink employee.
Goodman agreed with the trial judge, however, that the negligent hiring claim was preempted by the Federal Railroad Safety Act, which expressly bars the state from regulating any subject covered by Federal Railroad Administration safety rules. The FRA, Goodman noted, regulates the hiring, training, monitoring, and recertification of locomotive engineers.
Absent evidence that those regulations were violated, the claim necessarily fails, the jurist said.
Goodman also agreed with the trial judge that the plaintiffs lack a viable premises liability claim because Hidalgo failed to use due care when he crossed a bridge that was intended to be used exclusively by trains, especially since he could have used a regular traffic bridge directly next to it.
The case is Hidalgo v. Southern California Rail Authority, B268534.
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