Railroads Shielded From Lawsuits Over Some Rail Crossing Warning Devices

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Railroads Shielded From Lawsuits Over Some Rail Crossing Warning Devices

By Richard Carelli Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court today shielded railroads from being sued over allegedly inadequate warning devices at rail crossings if the equipment installed was federally funded. The 7-2 decision in a Tennessee case is a potentially far-ranging victory for the nation's railroads. There are some 260,000 grade-level rail crossings nationwide.

"Nothing prevents a state from revisiting the adequacy of devices installed using federal funds," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court. "States are free to install more protective devices at such crossings with their own funds or with additional (federal) funding.

"What states cannot do - once they have installed federally funded devices at a particular crossing - is hold the railroad responsible for the adequacy of those devices," she said.

The court's two dissenters said the decision "defies common sense and sound policy."

The ruling stripped Dedra Shanklin of the legal victory she had won against Norfolk Southern Railway Co. Lower courts had ordered the railroad to pay her $430,765 for the Oct. 3, 1993, death of her husband, Eddie Shanklin, who was killed when his car was struck by a train at a crossing in Gibson County, Tenn.

The crossing had a reflectorized sign but no gates or flashing lights to signal a train's approach. Shanklin was driving 20 mph, and he apparently did not hear the train whistle because his windows were rolled up and the radio was playing.

Mrs. Shanklin's lawsuit invoked a Tennessee law and accused the railroad of negligently having failed to install adequate warning devices. But the railroad's lawyers argued that the warning sign had been erected under a state project approved and financed by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

Such federal approval and funding should immunize the railroad from any liability, its lawyers said - an argument rejected by a federal trial judge and the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Today's decision reversed those rulings.

"Once the FHWA approved the project and the signs were installed using federal funds, the federal standard for adequacy displaced Tennessee statutory and common law addressing the same subject, thereby pre-empting (Mrs. Shanklin's) claim," O'Connor said.

Joining her opinion were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens dissented. Writing for the two, Ginsburg said attacked the court's ruling for displacing state negligence laws "with no substantive federal standard of conduct to fill the void. That outcome defines common sense and sound policy."

"Federal regulations already provide that railroads shall not be required to pay any share of the cost of federally financed grade crossing improvements," Ginsburg said. "Today the railroads have achieved a double windfall: the federal government foots the bill for installing safety devices and the same federal expenditure spares the railroads from tort liability, even for the inadequacy of devices designed only to secure the minimum protection Congress envisioned for all crossings."

The federal government has provided money for states to improve railroad crossings since 1973, and government figures show the number of fatalities in rail-crossing accidents dropped from about 1,500 in 1972 to 461 in 1997.

The case is Norfolk Southern Railway Co. vs. Shanklin, 99-312.


-- Carl Jenkins (Somewherepress@aol.com), April 17, 2000

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