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An Atlanta firm has successfully defended CSX Transportation Inc. in a $12 million wrongful-death claim that stemmed from a triple fatality at a Vienna, Ga., railroad crossing. The litigation relied, in part, on data stored by a “black box” that General Motors Inc. began installing in some of its vehicles in 1990. It was the first railroad crossing accident case in the United States to go to trial using GM’s black box data as evidence, said Matthew D. Williams, a partner at Atlanta’s Casey Gilson Leibel, who defended CSX. Black box data was not available to anyone outside GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration until two years ago when Cobb County, Ga., attorney Matthew C. Flournoy forced the automaker, as part of a wrongful-death suit, to release and interpret recorded data from the device, also known as a sensing and diagnostic module. The device is similar to those in airliners that record and preserve flight data moments before a crash. Williams said he, partner James E. Gilson and co-counsel Carr G. Dodson of Jones, Cork & Miller in Macon, Ga., won the case after floating a settlement offer that would have paid the 15-year-old plaintiff — the only one of the car’s four occupants to survive — about $4 million over the course of her life. Her lawyers rejected the offer. The Macon jury, he said, “decided the railroad played no part” in causing the accident, which killed the teen-ager’s brother, father and stepmother. The jury deliberated a day at the end of a two-week trial before delivering its verdict. Wright v. CSX Transportation, 5:01-cv-324-4 (M.D. Ga. Oct. 1, 2002). “We established that the railroad was zero percent at fault,” Williams continued. “It did absolutely nothing that contributed to the accident.” The teen’s attorneys included former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Hardy Gregory Jr. of Gregory Christy & Manikal in Cordele, Ga. Gary C. Christy, through his assistant, referred all questions to Gregory. Gregory is out of town for three weeks and could not be reached for comment. Williams said the car’s driver, Kevin Wright Sr., his wife and his son died in the late-night crash. The family was returning from a deposition in Albany, Ga., where the two children had testified in a civil action springing from the death of their mother, who had died in an accident caused by a drunken driver. Wright was driving across a set of three tracks at the crossing, despite the flashing signal that indicated a train was approaching, Williams said. Members of the train crew testified that they sounded the horn as the train, its headlights lit, approached the intersection. Georgia law bars drivers from crossing railroad tracks when faced with flashing lights until they can do so safely. But the plaintiff’s attorneys argued that Wright’s view of the track on which the fast-moving train was traveling was obscured by a small building between two sets of tracks and by tanker cars parked there, Williams said. In addition, the plaintiff’s lawyers argued, the railroad crossing where the crash occurred had a history of false signal activations. Williams said the railroad offered to settle as part of court-ordered mediation but “the mediation broke down fairly quickly” when the plaintiff’s lawyers refused anything less than $11.5 million. When the railroad’s attorneys offered a $4 million annuity payable over the teen’s lifetime, the plaintiff’s lawyers countered with a $4 million lump-sum payment, which the railroad rejected. The “cutting-edge technology” of the black box in the rental Cadillac that Wright was driving helped the railroad make its case, Williams said. The box captures data in the five seconds prior to the deployment of a car’s air bags, including the vehicle’s speed, brake application, engine rpm and throttle position. The information obtained from the black box indicated that the car was going 11 mph as Wright crossed the triple set of tracks and then stopped immediately prior to impact, according to Williams. It also indicated — based on calculations by a Georgia state trooper who downloaded the data — that Wright coasted past the flashing signal without stopping, the lawyer said. Williams said the train crew saw Wright’s wife look up at the train, point at it and then turn back toward her husband in the seconds before the crash. “We think she might have said the train was coming, and his initial response was to stop. If he had never slowed, but maintained that 11 mph, he wouldn’t have been hit. … All he had to do was go another 12 feet and he was clear,” Williams said. “This black box is what helps us understand how all this unfolded. I do not know of a jury trial where the data has been used. I know there has not been one in this country where it was used in a grade-crossing accident.” Williams said obtaining black box data from GM was not an issue in the CSX litigation. Since Flournoy’s suit two years ago, GM has granted a license to a private firm to sell software that will download and read black box data, he said. “There was no need to get involved with GM.”

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