How a Tragic Railroad Fatality Led to a Legal Case of Ambiguity

Misapplication of the last clear chance doctrine in Coutlakis v. CSX

Aaron Schnoor
10 min readJul 3, 2024
Photo by Brian Suh on Unsplash

Author’s note: this piece was originally written as an academic essay. Although it is not in the same format as a typical Medium article, I sincerely hope it is helpful and insightful for readers.

In the realm of American jurisprudence, few concepts are as widely debated as the issue of contributory negligence versus the last clear chance doctrine. These legal terms, which are virtually foreign to many Americans, have led to myriad disputes in the courtroom and often yield vague, uncertain outcomes. One prominent example is the case of Coutlakis v. CSX Transportation, Inc., which came before the Virginia Supreme Court in 2017. Coutlakis v. CSX presents a clear conflict between contributory negligence and the last clear chance doctrine, and the purpose of this paper is to analyze the conflict and present an argument advocating for a reversal of the court’s decision. After studying the background of Coutlakis v. CSX, the analysis of the case will revolve around three main questions: first, does the distinction between contributory and comparative negligence apply in this situation? Second, should the plaintiff be held to a greater duty of caution in this case? And third, does the plaintiff’s…