As a Missouri personal injury attorney, I’ve written here several times before about accidents involving railroad crossings. These are particularly dangerous here in the Midwest, where we have a lot of railroad lines and the crossings aren’t always as well marked as they should be. Railroads are frequently federally regulated, however, which means different laws are likely to apply than would if the crash had been between two cars. In Grade v. BNSF Railway Co., the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld dismissal of most of the claims on the basis that they were preempted by federal railroad laws. Steven Grade of Nebraska was injured after he drove his car into a stopped railcar on a day when an ice storm greatly reduced visibility. He sued BNSF for blocking the crossing without adding a warning or breaking up the line of railcars.
Grade and his wife were coming back from a trip to buy groceries in Hastings, Nebraska. The trip was at night in late December, and an ice storm had affected both the roads and the visibility. As Grade attempted to drive through the railroad crossing, he hit a railcar that had been detached from a BNSF engine and left parked unattended at the crossing, waiting for a crew change and maintenance. (In fact, the line of parked railcars was so long that the court noted, in a footnote, that another driver hit it at a different intersection on the same night.) Grade’s car was totaled and he suffered disabling injuries to one arm. His lawsuit alleged BNSF should have supervised its railcars; warned drivers about the obstruction; and/or broken the line of railcars so it wouldn’t block the intersection. The federal district court granted summary judgment to BNSF, finding most of the claims were federally preempted and the “break the line” argument lacked proof of causation.
Grade appealed on all counts, but the Eighth Circuit ultimately affirmed. On the inadequate warning claims, the court found that they were preempted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Norfolk Southern Railway Co. v. Shanklin, which said any state-law claim of inadequacy at a railroad crossing is preempted when the warning device was installed with federal funds. It rejected an argument that a 2007 law superseded Shanklin, because that law applies to ongoing obligations, not the installation standards at issue. Similarly, a claim that BNSF should have used more reflective material fails because it was using as much reflective material as federally required. On the claims for improper blocking of the crossing and failure to break up the railcars, the court found that Grade did not show that his injuries were the natural and probable result of BNSF blocking the intersection for longer than the ten minutes permitted by state law. Finally, the Eighth found that Grade never showed BNSF’s railcars were not under its control, so the control claim failed as well.
This outcome is another in a lengthening list of state-law personal injury cases rejected for federal preemption reasons, which is disappointing for southern Illinois auto accident lawyers like me. Followers of the U.S. Supreme Court may remember the court rejecting cases involving medical devices and generic prescription drugs, all of which it says are preempted by federal law. Attorneys for big businesses that are likely targets of lawsuits have busily expanded the idea to nearly every area with federal regulations, sometimes with thin justification. The end result is that injured people like Grade don’t get their cases heard — that is, a jury never even considers them. Instead, the large companies that harmed them avoid responsibility for their own actions — in fact, they avoid even scrutiny of those actions. As a St. Louis car crash attorney, I don’t believe this unfettered power of the strong over the weak is good for our society.
Carey, Danis & Lowe represents clients across Missouri and southern Illinois who have suffered serious transportation accident injuries because of someone else’s negligence. If you’d like to tell us about your case and learn more about how we can help, send us a message through our website or call us today at 1-877-678-3400.
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