MR. SNOW AND HIS RAILROAD VERDICT
February 11, 2011 § 4 Comments
Ed Snow of Meridian was one of the most formidable defense trial lawyers in Mississippi in the 1950’s and 60’s. He represented the railroad, and it was rare for a jury to return a verdict against his clients.
The railroad had been the lifeline of Meridian since the 1870’s. The rail lines that nurtured the city grew up and proliferated on the south edge of the main business district until by the 1950’s there were more than twenty lines running east and west that had to be crossed headed south from downtown.
Yet in the early 1950’s there was no overpass over the major rail lines running right through the heart of Meridian’s downtown. At the crossing of the city’s busy major artery, the north-south Twenty-Second Avenue, there was a guard shack at both the north and south ends of the crossing. In each shack sat a crossing guard awaiting a telegraph signal that a train was coming. When he got the signal, the crossing guard would stand in the street waving a warning placard in the daylight and a lantern at night.
One dark night, a car cruised southward down Twenty-Second Avenue approaching the crossing. The occupants of the car, I am sure, were noticing the throngs at Weidmann’s and the couples strolling along the sidewalks, and were not giving much thought to the railroad tracks ahead. According to the driver and his wife, who was the passenger, there was no signal at the crossing, and they sped ahead only to slam with considerable force into the side of a freight train that was proceeding east. Both occupants were seriously injured, and they filed suit against the railroad.
Mr. Snow duly prepared for the trial. His case depended on the testimony of the crossing guard, who was a simple, poorly educated man, but who was honest. Mr. Snow went over the man’s story repeatedly, and the man consistently insisted that he did wave his lantern frantically, but the car would not slow or stop. He said that it ran straight past him, into the crossing, almost running him over, and collided fatefully with the train. Mr. Snow was satisfied that the man would answer every question truthfully, and that he would not equivocate.
At trial the plaintiff’s attorney called the crossing guard as a witness. The attorney was a skillful, experienced advocate who tried every wily ploy he knew to catch the crossing guard in an inconsistency or to get him to change his story. He grilled the guard thoroughly, attacking his memory and the plausibility of his testimony. He made the guard demonstrate for the jury how he had held the lantern, the position at which he stood in relation to oncoming traffic, and the angle at which he had waved the lantern to and fro over his head. He quizzed the witness to the point of exhaustion about the exact time when the signal came for the approaching train, how long it took him to respond to the signal and get into the street, and the time that elapsed before the train entered the crossing. The plaintiffs’ lawyer’s cross examination was brutal, but to no avail. The unsophisticated crossing guard held his ground, unwavering in his insistence that he had waved the lantern and had to jump aside to keep from being run over as the plaintiffs’ car zipped by.
The jury returned a verdict for the railroad, and Mr. Snow and his crossing guard left the courthouse. As they walked down the steps leaving the building, Mr. Snow congratulated the witness.
Mr. Snow: You did a good job. I appreciate the way you stood up to that lawyer.
Guard: Thank you, Mr. Snow.
Mr. Snow: It’s not easy for a lay person to avoid all the traps lawyers use in their questions.
Guard: Oh, Mr. Snow, I was afraid he was going to ask me one more question.
Mr. Snow: One more question? What question?
Guard: “Was the lantern lit?”
Mr. Snow continued to practice law until shortly before his death around 1980. He lived on busy 23rd Avenue in the house that is now the dental office of David McGrew. Every weekday morning Mr. Snow would back out of the driveway in his enormous black Chrysler Imperial. If you saw him at the wheel, you would see a smallish, balding white-haired head in the driver’s seat, eye-level at about the top of the steering wheel. He never looked to see whether any cars were coming; he simply backed straight into the avenue heedless of the traffic, and oncoming cars had to yield or else. He would then proceed south toward his office on the second floor of the First National Bank (now Trustmark) building, never exceeding more than ten miles an hour. Stop lights and stop signs were irrelevant to him, as was the middle line of the street. He glided along straddling the middle of the street, oblivious to other cars, through red lights and stop signs, letting the traffic snarl and back up in every direction as he made his way downtownward at less than a snail’s pace, a long train of cars following him like a doleful funeral procession.
Post Script Two:
Around 1956, Mayor W. S. Smylie succeeded in completing the defining project of his administration: the Twenty-Second Avenue overpass. Its dedication was marked with a parade through downtown. Here’s a photograph of the occasion taken south of the overpass looking north with the Threefoot Building in the background.