Friday, October 24–Judge Rules Proof Burden Not Met In Train Wreck Case

SNOW HILL – A lawsuit filed last February by the co-owners of a house in Newark against the Maryland and Delaware Railroad Company seeking nearly $1 million for damage to their home and disruption of their lives allegedly caused by a train derailment along Route 113 nearly four years ago was dismissed last week when a Circuit Court judge agreed the plaintiffs had not provided expert witnesses to meet their burden of proof in the case.

The co-owners of the house on Basket Switch Rd., Cleo K. Sundstron and Dinna M. Lawrence, filed suit last February in Worcester County Circuit Court asking a judge to intercede on their behalf after three years of frustration with the railroad and insurance companies. The two women prepared and filed the detailed complaint on their own when they could not find an attorney to represent them, which ultimately proved to be their undoing in the case.

Last week, a Circuit Court judge ruled favorably on the defense’s motion for summary judgment, effectively dismissing the case with prejudice. According to the defense’s motion, summary judgment has been termed the “put up, or shut up” moment in a lawsuit when a party must show what evidence it has to convince the court of its version of the facts. In this case, the plaintiffs had not presented any expert witnesses to support their claims just weeks before trial was set to begin.

“One of the deadlines imposed was that the plaintiff was required to identify all expert witnesses on of before June 27,” the motion for summary judgment reads. “That identification and the disclosure required was never made by the plaintiffs. Thus, now less than two months before the trial, the plaintiffs have identified no experts to testify to the myriad of evidentiary issues that must be addressed in order for the plaintiffs to succeed in this litigation.”

Sundstrom and Lawrence jointly bought the house on Basket Switch Rd. near Newark in July 2004 for $145,000. Seven months later, on Feb. 25, 2005, a Maryland and Delaware Railroad Co. freight train traveling along the tracks that cross Route 113 just south of Newark and continue along parallel to Route 113 derailed, toppling 50 cars carrying 800 tons of grain along the highway and near adjacent properties.

Eight of the derailed cars ended up in or near the front yard of the house in question on Basket Switch Rd., allegedly shaking the home from its foundation and causing irreparable damage to the structure built in 1900. According to the suit filed by Sundstrom and Lawrence, the homeowners had exhausted all attempts at relief from the railroad and the insurance company during the nearly three years after the train wreck and appealed to a Worcester County judge to intercede on their behalf.

“Your honor, you are our last hope,” the complaint read. “We did not buy this home in this condition. We pray your relief to make ourselves whole again. We have had nothing but upheaval since the train wreck. Our quiet lives were abruptly interrupted and we have not been the same since.”

Although it is somewhat unusual, Sundstrom and Lawrence prepared and filed the thorough complaint, complete with detailed pre-accident appraisals, witness testimony, correspondence and dozens of photographs, themselves without the assistance of an attorney.

“I have tried to get help for the past two years and 10 months and it has been like hitting a brick wall,” said Sundstrom in the complaint. “We have tried to retain several lawyers, but no one will go against the railroad.”

The suit claims as many as eight of the derailed boxcars ended up on their property, shifting the house and its foundation at least eight different times. The complaint includes a detailed list of the problems that arose in the house after the accident such as the floors are “spongy” throughout the home, the staircase is leaning, the floor upstairs slopes, a bedroom window will not stay shut and many of the floors have dropped about two inches. In one room, the complaint asserts the floor moves up and down and they can feel it move when the dog walks across it.

Sundstrom said three months before the train wreck she approached a railroad employee inspecting the tracks and pointed out hollow timbers and the soil that had washed away under the tracks. Three months later, the train derailed and the accident was blamed on a broken rail that went undetected during a recent inspection.

Proving the allegations the train wreck caused the damage to their home likely would have required a panel of experts on derailments, rail inspections, home inspections, contractors etc., but Sundstrom and Lawrence had not identified any expert witnesses before the prescribed deadlines in the case. While their case might have had merit, it was the inability of the plaintiffs to secure expert witnesses that swayed the judge to rule in favor of the defense’s motion for summary judgment last week.

“It is respectfully submitted that without the aid of expert testimony on behalf of the plaintiffs, their burden of proof cannot be met,” the motion to dismiss reads.