Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.

Waits v. St. Louis-San Francisco Railway Co., 216 Kan. 160, 531 P.2d 22 (1975).

This case addresses the following issue:

What are common ways in which railroads can be negligent?

This case explores common ways in which railroads can be negligent, both in the operation of the railcars and failure to keep up railroad crossings. Id. at 167. In this case, the court examined what obligations a conductor has when approaching a railroad crossing. Id. at 168. The court determined that “the means will depend on the particular conditions and circumstances surrounding the crossing.” Id. Based on the facts of this case, failure to sound the train’s horn was negligent on the part of the rail company. Id. at 171.

Plaintiffs in this case were passengers of a vehicle that were killed in an automobile-train accident. Id. at 161. The car was travelling on a roadway going approximately the speed limit—55 m.p.h. Id. at 162. One of Defendant’s train was approaching a railroad crossing that intersected the road this vehicle was travelling. Id. The crossing did not have arms but did have a yellow and black railroad crossing sign. Id. The driver could not see the train because it was dusk, and ended up colliding directly with the train. Id. At no time prior to the accident did the train sound its horn. Id.

The court began by noting that there is “no general rule of law” concerning what duty a railroad company owes to drivers crossing tracks. Id. at 167. Instead, the facts and circumstances regarding each crossing determines what precautions must be taken. Id. To put it another way, “the duty of a railroad to a motorist approaching a crossing is directly affected by the care required of the motorist.” Id. The more likely a motorist is to miss the train, the more the conductor must to warn of the crossing. Id.

In this case, the crossing lacked arms to help stop traffic. Id. at 169. Additionally, the road that intersected the tracks allowed for vehicles to drive at a highway speeds. Id. Finally, the lighting was such that the train would be less visible than in daylight. Id. at 170. These facts, all taken together, increased what the conductor should have done to notify motorists. Id. Most obviously and notable was using the train’s air horn as it approached and passed through the intersection. Id. The conductor had not done so in this case, and the court agreed with the jury that this was negligent. Id.