EXCLUSIVE: Richland County pays $150,000 in Blythewood railroad double death

jmonk@thestate.comMay 16, 2013 

— A lawsuit over the 2008 deaths of a man and wife crushed by a Norfolk Southern train at a crossing near Blythewood has been settled in the middle of a jury trial in Richland County circuit court.

Richland County – without admitting fault – has agreed to pay the estates of Derald Hill Sr. and his wife, Nichole Johnson-Hill, $150,000, according to legal records in the case. They were survived by four children.

It isn’t yet known how much money Norfolk Southern Railway Co. and The Mungo Company – the two other defendants – will pay the Hills’ estates.

Those amounts could be made public in a month or so. Norfolk Southern and The Mungo Company want to keep the settlement amounts secret.

Under a 2003 S.C. Supreme Court order, Judge Casey Manning will have to hold a public hearing and determine that the monetary amounts of the settlements should be kept secret because private interests that want to keep the settlements secret outweigh the public’s interest in knowing how much Norfolk Southern and Mungo paid to settle the case.

According to legal papers, the case aired numerous public issues involving railroad safety at road crossings in general and at the Hobart Road crossing near Blythewood in particular. The issues include the extent to which a railroad company, a local government and a developer that increased vehicular traffic at a once-remote traffic crossing are obligated for making a railroad crossing safer.

The deadly crash took place at 6:45 p.m. Aug. 4, 2008, a Monday, as two couples were headed to Blythewood High School to attend a parents meeting for the school’s football team.

Driver Jason Singley and passengers Natasha, his wife, and Derald Hill and Nichole Johnson-Hill, exited The Mungo Company’s Brookhaven subdivision, turned left onto Hobart Road, described by plaintiffs as an “unimproved dirt road” owned by Richland County, and approached the railroad crossing. The crossing did not have gates that could be lowered up or down or flashing lights warning drivers of an approaching train.

It was undisputed that Singley ran a stop sign and crossed the railroad tracks as the train, going about 45 mph, bore down upon his Ford Expedition SUV. On impact, the Hills were killed; the Singleys, injured. A camera mounted on the train captured the entire tragic sequence.

In pleadings, lawyers for the Hill family argued that Norfolk Southern, Richland County and The Mungo Company also shared responsibility for the deaths.

For one thing, the crossing itself was physically complex – “a hazardous, unguarded crossing” – and full of visual distractions, including a narrow roadway, a curve in the road, different elevations between road and tracks, plaintiffs argued. Moreover, in previous years, there had been three “near misses” of trains almost hitting other vehicles crossing the tracks there, plaintiffs said.

The county, Mungo and Norfolk Southern each had longstanding obligations to upgrade the crossing, according to the plaintiffs’ pleadings.

In their yet-to-be-filed settlement papers, Norfolk Southern and Mungo will admit no wrongdoing in the matter.

A lawsuit by the Hills’ estates against the driver, Singley, was settled earlier.

In its settlement documents filed with the clerk of court’s office, Richland County has agreed to “conduct due diligence in seeking the relocation” of the railroad crossing where the deadly crash took place.

While that language doesn’t obligate the county to a strict timetable, it appears to commit the county to take steps to make sure the current crossing will phased out and replaced with a safer one.

A county spokeswoman said, “We do not have a comment on the matter at this time.”

Tom Dougal, who represented Mungo, said his client’s position was that Richland County had the obligation to appropriate the money to upgrade the railroad crossing.

The Mungo Company, from the time it developed the housing development, had agreed to pay one-third of the cost of an upgraded crossing, Dougal said.

Norfolk Southern attorney Ron Wray could not be reached.

Columbia attorney Carl Solomon, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, said it “would have been far cheaper to spend the tens of thousands of dollars” to upgrade the crossing rather than to hold a trial and pay settlements.

“Gates and blinking lights won’t prevent all accidents, but they will prevent most accidents,” Solomon said.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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