TORTS & RAILROAD / In wrongful death case arising from locomotive collision at grade crossing with auto driven by plaintiff’s decedent, trial court was correct to rule that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether federal preemption precluded plaintiff’s claim that traffic warning devices were inadequate as a matter of state tort law.

Indiana R. Co. v. Davidson, 2012 WL 6706934 (Indiana Court of Appeals, December 27, 2012). Free copy available here.

Who is affected? Operators of railroads and tort claimants for rail crossing warning malfunctions.

Court’s line of thought:

1. Federal preemption “attached” with respect to the adequacy of warning signs at the subject grade crossing when the grade crossing was built in 1978. Why? Because it was done with federal funds and according to federal standards.

2. Defendant railroad and possibly the state government (highway department) changed those circumstances in 2009:

“Sometime in 2009, Indiana Rail Road removed the federally-funded crossbucks. Prior to the accident, Indiana Rail Road installed crossbuck signs paid for by State funds at a different location at the crossing.”

3. There is a genuine issue of material fact as to the legal consequences of what the railroad and state government did in 2009 with respect to the grade crossing (i.e., continue federal preemption or not).  

From the standpoint of federal preemption doctrine as possibly applied to the adequacy of the warning signs at the grade crossing, the question is whether or not the federal government “affirmatively abandoned” responsibility for the grade crossing with the state having substituted for the federal government.

“Here, it is undisputed that federal funds participated in the installment of the original crossbucks in 1978 at the Feree Drive grade crossing. It is also undisputed that although the new crossbucks are of the same type as previously approved by the federal government, only state funds were involved in the installment of new crossbucks in 2009 and these new crossbucks were not placed in the exact same location at the crossing as their predecessors. In its application requesting state funds, the Indiana Rail Road neither included nor incorporated the federal specifications from the 1978 project. Because state funds were requested and granted, the Indiana Rail Road became responsible for assessing the crossing’s safety needs pursuant to INDOT’s regulations. There is no evidence indicating that the federal government approved the newly located crossbucks. In light of Cochran and Cezar and considering the totality of the designated evidence, we conclude that there is a genuine issue of material fact whether the federal government affirmatively abandoned the project and federal preemption no longer applies to the Feree Drive railroad crossing.”