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Frye v. CSX Transportation, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

August 5, 2019

Jessica Frye, Plaintiff-Appellant,
CSX Transportation, Inc.; Consolidated Rail Corporation; Alan Gallacher, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued: May 7, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan at Detroit. No. 2:14-cv-11996-Stephen J. Murphy, III, District Judge.


          Mark E. Parrish, BOYD, KENTER, THOMAS & PARRISH, LLC, Independence, Missouri, for Appellant.

          Joseph J. McDonnell, GALLAGHER SHARP LLP, Detroit, Michigan, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Mark E. Parrish, BOYD, KENTER, THOMAS & PARRISH, LLC, Independence, Missouri, for Appellant.

          Joseph J. McDonnell, Mary C. O'Donnell, GALLAGHER SHARP LLP, Detroit, Michigan, for Appellee.

          Before: COLE, Chief Judge; STRANCH and READLER, Circuit Judges.



         Tragedy befell thirteen-year-old Shyan Frye. While walking her bicycle over a rail crossing in Huron Township, Michigan, she was struck by an oncoming train. The collision proved fatal.

         In the aftermath of this tragedy, Shyan's mother, Plaintiff Jessica Frye, brought suit against Defendants CSX Transportation, Inc., the train's owner; Alan Gallacher, the train's conductor; and Consolidated Rail Corporation, or "Conrail," the owner of the track. The claims against Gallacher were resolved in his favor at summary judgment, and the remaining claims were submitted to a jury. The jury, in turn, returned a verdict in favor of Defendants CSX and Conrail.

         On appeal, Frye challenges numerous aspects of the proceedings below. She takes issue with the district court's entry of summary judgment for Gallacher. And she takes issue with a host of rulings at trial. They include: The district court's refusal to strike potential juror Jay Lodge for cause during voir dire; two evidentiary rulings by the district court, one admitting evidence of the potential side effects of an anti-depressant Shyan was taking at the time of her death, and another excluding photographs of the railroad crossing after it was resurfaced; and finally, the district court's refusal to give a jury instruction regarding the heightened duty of care imposed on tortfeasors when children are present.

         We find no error in the district court's summary judgment ruling nor in its handling of the trial proceedings. In a case born out of tragedy and presenting challenging legal issues, the district court allowed the jury to assess the defendants' culpability against the backdrop of the proper legal framework. We accordingly AFFIRM the judgment of the district court.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On April 15, 2011, Shyan Frye, a thirteen-year-old eighth-grade student, was struck and killed by a train while walking her bicycle over a single-track crossing. The train was operated by CSX and manned by two CSX employees: Craig Fischer, the engineer, and Defendant Alan Gallacher, the conductor. At the time of the accident, the train was traveling below the applicable speed limit, and its horn sounded for approximately 20 seconds before it reached the crossing-more than required by federal law. See 49 C.F.R. § 222.21(b)(2).

         The crossing was owned and maintained by Conrail. Conrail had equipped the crossing with signal bells and lights that activated as intended nearly 40 seconds before the train arrived at the crossing. The accident occurred on a clear day when oncoming trains were fully visible.

         A. The Parties Present Differing Explanations As To The Cause Of The Train Accident.

         Fischer and Gallacher were the only witnesses to the accident. According to their testimony, Shyan came into view of the train crew approximately 40 seconds before the accident. Both Fischer and Gallacher testified that they witnessed Shyan walk onto the track while straddling her bicycle. When the train was roughly a quarter-mile from the crossing, Fischer applied the train's emergency brakes, realizing a collision was imminent. Shyan never looked up at the train before it struck her.

         Why did Shyan remain on the tracks in the face of an oncoming train? That question, more than any other, divided the parties below. Frye asserted that Shyan's bicycle tires became stuck in the poorly maintained tracks as she made her way through the crossing. Photographs admitted at trial revealed large gaps in the crossing in which a bicycle tire could have become lodged.

         Defendants advanced a different narrative, one that turned on Shyan's mental state. Defendants elicited testimony indicating that Shyan was struggling with school and was at risk of having to repeat eighth grade. She also struggled with weight problems. At the time of her death, she was taking Adderall for ADHD and Celexa to offset Adderall's side effects. An autopsy found Celexa present in Shyan's liver.

         Throughout the proceedings below, Defendants emphasized that suicidal ideation was a potential side effect of the medication Shyan was taking. Frye responded with a motion in limine to exclude testimony of this kind at trial, describing it as irrelevant and substantially more prejudicial than probative. The district court denied the motion but also instructed Defendants to lay the proper foundation for the testimony at trial. During the ensuing trial proceedings, Defendants proffered the testimony of Dr. Scott Somerset, who performed the autopsy, and Dr. Bradford Hepler, the Wayne County toxicologist, to describe Celexa's potential side effects. Both doctors testified that Celexa is an anti-depressant capable of causing suicidal thoughts in children consistent with warnings issued by both the Food and Drug Administration and the drug's manufacturer. The district court admitted the testimony.

         B. The District Court Enters Summary Judgment For Gallacher, And The Remaining Defendants Proceeded To Trial.

         Prior to trial, Defendants moved for summary judgment on all issues. The district court entered summary judgment in favor of Gallacher, the conductor, rejecting Frye's argument that CSX's operating procedures, which assigned the conductor responsibility to assist the engineer in stopping the train, created a legal duty to do so on the part of the conductor. The district court found that Frye did not argue that Gallacher was under any state-law duty to stop the train independent of the operating procedures; nor did she cite any Michigan authorities to that effect.

         As to the remaining Defendants, the district court concluded that Frye had abandoned all but four of her claims-two against CSX, one for failing to slow the train and another for failing to sound the train horn properly, and two against Conrail, one for failing to maintain the crossing and another for failing to train employees regarding inspection and repair of the crossing. The district court concluded that no reasonable jury could find that CSX failed to sound the train ...

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