A West Virginia railway company recently reached a settlement in a third-party suit, which originated from a case brought by a man pinned under a collapsed building for nine hours. In 2009, Charles Eugene Harris was an employee of Cobra Natural Resources, working on the second level of a multi-story coal-loading building. The building was located next to a broken piece of railroad track that was owned and operated by Norfolk Southern Railway Company. The broken track led to five empty cars derailing and crashing into the facility, causing the collapse. Harris remained beneath the rubble for hours, and was ultimately hospitalized for nine days.
In 2011, Harris filed a lawsuit it Mingo County Circuit Court against Norfolk Southern Railway. He argued that the railway company breached a duty to inspect and maintain the railroad track. As a result of the breach and the ensuing collapse, Harris was harmed. He suffered a fracture in one of his vertebrae, a cut in his right leg, and post-traumatic stress disorder due to the collapse. Harris ultimately could not return to work and lost his job. The jury ended up awarding him $800,000 for lost wages, $125,000 for lost services, $57,200 for medical expenses, and $2 million for pain and suffering.
After the verdict, Norfolk Southern Railway filed a lawsuit against Harris’s employer, Cobra Natural Resources, and Sperry Rail Services. The railroad company argued that Sperry performed tests on the defective piece of railroad just five months before the accident occurred and found no issues. In the Rail Testing Services Contract, Sperry had agreed to shoulder the costs of claims arising from Sperry’s negligent performance, as did Cobra. Cobra had already sued Sperry and Norfolk Southern Railway for property damage resulting from the crash. The settlement resulted in Norfolk Southern Railway being awarded $3 million.
It is quite common for West Virginia personal injury attorneys to see situations where a defendant in a lawsuit tries to pull an outside party into the suit. Or, if the defendant loses, to sue a third party to pay for at least part of the award. The first situation is known as Impleader: a party compels — or “joins” — a third party to an existing lawsuit because the third party is equally responsible for the events at issue. The theory is that justice can be done more efficiently if the two are part of one case, rather than two separate lawsuits. Impleader is defined under Rule 14(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, as well as Rule 14 of West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure. It is unknown whether Norfolk Southern Railway Company attempted to pull Sperry into Harris’s lawsuit prior to filing its own suit.
Indemnity, where one party pays the second party for losses the second party suffered, is also a fairly common practice. Indemnity is usually agreed to beforehand in a contract, and the indemnifying party may or may not be responsible for the other party’s losses. In this case, it appears that one indemnifying party, Sperry, may have been responsible for the damage caused, while another indemnifying party, Cobra, was not.