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Coutlakis v. CSX Transportation, Inc.

Supreme Court of Virginia

March 9, 2017

GINA COUTLAKIS, PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF JAMES COUTLAKIS, DECEASED, AND EXECUTOR OF HIS ESTATE,
v.
CSX TRANSPORTATION, INC., ET AL.

         FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE CITY OF RICHMOND Theodore J. Markow, Judge Designate

          PRESENT: All the Justices

          OPINION

          CLEO E. POWELL JUSTICE

         Gina Coutlakis ("Gina") appeals the judgment of the trial court sustaining a demurrer on the basis that her action was barred because her husband, James Coutlakis ("James"), was contributorily negligent.

         I. BACKGROUND

         As the present case was decided on demurrer, "we recite the facts contained in the pleadings and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Martin v. Ziherl, 269 Va. 35, 38, 607 S.E.2d 367, 368 (2005). So viewed, the record demonstrates that, on September 4, 2015, Gina filed her third amended complaint against CSX Transportation, Inc. ("CSX"), Brian Crowder ("Crowder"), and Daniel Epstein ("Epstein") (collectively the "Appellees"), alleging that their negligence resulted in the death of James. In her complaint, Gina alleged that, on July 6, 2013, James was walking adjacent to railroad tracks owned by CSX. At the time, James was listening to music on his cellular telephone through earbuds. As a result, James was unaware of the fact that a CSX train was approaching him from behind.

         Gina further alleged that Crowder, the train's conductor, and Epstein, the train's engineer, had a chance to avoid the accident, as they saw James while he was several hundred yards in front of the train. However, as James continued to walk along the tracks, showing no sign that he was aware of the approaching train, neither Crowder nor Epstein took any steps to alert James or avoid a collision. James was subsequently "struck by a part of the train that extended out from the side of the body of the [t]rain which caused severe injuries to his head and . . . shoulder, " killing him immediately.

         CSX, Crowder and Epstein collectively demurred, arguing that, even when viewed in the light most favorable to Gina, James's contributory negligence was evident on the face of the complaint and, therefore, Gina's claim was barred. The defendants further asserted that Gina's reliance on the last clear chance doctrine was misplaced, because James's negligence was ongoing at the time he was struck. After hearing argument on the matter, the trial court sustained the demurrer.

         Gina appeals.

         II. ANALYSIS

         On appeal, Gina argues that the trial court erred in sustaining the Appellees' demurrer. According to Gina, her third amended complaint contained sufficient facts to support her allegation that the last clear chance doctrine may apply to the present case and, therefore, James's contributory negligence did not require dismissal of her complaint. We agree.

The purpose of a demurrer is to determine whether a [complaint] states a cause of action upon which the requested relief may be granted. A demurrer tests the legal sufficiency of facts alleged in pleadings, not the strength of proof. Accordingly, we accept as true all properly pled facts and all inferences fairly drawn from those facts. Because the decision whether to grant a demurrer involves issues of law, we review the circuit court's judgment de novo.

Abi-Najm v. Concord Condo., LLC, 280 Va. 350, 356-57, 699 S.E.2d 483, 486-87 (2010) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         At present, this Court has only recognized two types of plaintiff who may avail themselves of the last clear chance doctrine. The first type of plaintiff, the helpless plaintiff, is a plaintiff who "negligently placed himself in a situation of peril from which he is physically unable to remove himself." Greear v. Noland Co., 197 Va. 233, 238, 89 S.E.2d 49, 53 (1955). In the case of a helpless plaintiff, "the defendant is liable if he ...


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