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State high court tosses "standing train doctrine'

The Florida Supreme Court calls the 1938 legal principle obsolete by today's standards.

The Florida Supreme Court ran over a legal principle known as the "standing train doctrine" Thursday with a unanimous decision.

"We take the opportunity to formally abolish the doctrine as anachronistic to our system of comparative fault," Justice Leander Shaw wrote for the court in a Citrus County case.

The "standing train doctrine" dates to 1938, when the state Supreme Court ruled that plaintiffs can't sue for damages from accidents with stationary trains or rail cars at crossings, regardless of whether conditions were dark, foggy or wet.

Thursday's ruling stemmed from a crash involving a man who was driving to work before sunrise on the rainy, foggy morning of Oct. 11, 1995, and a train that was crossing State Road 495 in Citrus County.

William Webster of Crystal River had several thousand dollars in medical bills and, in 1996, sued Florida Power Corp., which owned the railroad crossing.

In his suit, Webster said that when he was about a mile from the railroad crossing, the warning lights appeared to dim out. He believed the train had passed through the intersection and continued driving at about 40 mph.

But when he was within 30 feet of the tracks, he realized the train was still crossing. He couldn't stop his car and collided with the last car of the 90-car train.

Florida Power persuaded the trial judge to dismiss the lawsuit, citing the "standing train doctrine" and arguing "that the train's lights were burning, that its horn was sounding and that its bells were ringing at the time of the accident."

But the 5th District Court of Appeal overturned that decision, saying the "standing train doctrine" had evolved and didn't apply in the case.

In 1944, the state Supreme Court had expanded the doctrine to cover moving trains when a woman drove her car into the 17th car of a 32-car freight train.

But then Florida's high court started chipping away at the doctrine and narrowing its scope.

In Thursday's ruling, Shaw noted that in 1992, an Oklahoma appeals court wiped out a similar legal principle in that state, calling it a "legal dinosaur" that "tramples 20th century negligence law."

Neither Webster's attorney nor Florida Power lawyers had seen Thursday's ruling.