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Federal Rail Safety Act or Federal Snuff Out Act?

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A Canadian Pacific Railway train derailed in January 2002 near Minot, North Dakota, spewing anyhydrous ammonia from tankar cars, causing extensive property damage and personal injuries. First, the federal district court certified a class action. The Court lowered the boom later. On March 6, 2006, the U.S. District Court threw out every count of a plantiff’s Class Action (D. N.D) finding that preemption under the Federal Rail Safety Act barred all such claims. The court reasoned that since there was a federal rail safety law that promotes “uniform rail safety” it means that no negligence arguments (including violations of that Act!) can be brought against railroads. I submit that the Judge got lost in his own analysis. The Act was enacted to promote rail safety, not let railroads hide behind the Act, with less accountability.

The Federal case is called Mehl, et al v. Canadian Pacific Railway, Ltd, 2006 WL 522435 (D. N. D.)

The North Dakota press is in an uproar.

One article entitled “Federal Act Must Be Changed” stated:

Somewhere today, there should be lawmakers frantically writing new legislation to fix the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970. The act needs to be changed so railroads can no longer hide behind it in a court of law.

U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland cited the act, which makes the railroad immune from legal action, when he dismissed a class-action lawsuit brought against Canadian Pacific Railway by Minot residents who suffered injuries following the 2002 derailment and release of deadly anhydrous ammonia on Minot’s west edge.
Even the judge didn’t think it was fair.

Hovland said the federal legislation “closes every available door and remedy for injured parties.”

The Minot Daily News added:

“It’s doubtful the act was intended to let railroads simply ­ and legally ­ walk away from their responsibility after disasters like the Minot derailment. There must be a way for citizens to seek compensation for injuries they have suffered from railroad accidents. We expect changes, and we expect the names of Kent Conrad, Byron Dorgan and Earl Pomeroy to be all over the legislation.
The fact that this federal act even still exists ­ giving Canadian Pacific Railway a legal way to shirk its responsibility ­ is nothing short of shameful.

Some of the significant parts of the Judge’s opinion are set out below:

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The Court rejects plaintiff’s “compliance” theory of preemption. Neither the United States Supreme Court, nor the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals require railroads to prove FRA compliance before allowing state law preemption. Both Courts deem coverage, rather than compliance, to be preemption’s touchstone.”

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The Plaintiffs also attempt to distinguish the regulations by asserting that the regulations do not cover some of their specific allegations of negligence. For example, the Plaintiffs assert that the regulations do not prescribe the box anchoring patterns to be used. Again, as the Eighth Circuit has held, the regulations need not set forth in minute detail each action a railroad must take. Rather, the regulations must substantially subsume a particular subject matter. See Scottsbluff, 416 F.3d 787, 794 (8th Cir.2005). The Court expressly finds that the Plaintiffs’ construction and maintenance claims are preempted by federal regulation and that such claims must be dismissed.”
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“While the Court is convinced the dismissal of Plaintiffs’ claims is inevitable under the current state of federal law in the Eighth Circuit, this Court recognizes that such a result is unduly harsh and leaves the Plaintiffs with essentially no remedy for this tragic accident…. By pervasively legislating the field of railroad safety, Congress demonstrated its intent to create uniform national standards and to preempt state regulation of railroads….
The Federal Railroad Safety Act passed by Congress in 1970 has ensured national uniformity of railroad safety regulations, but it has also absolved railroads from any common law liability for failure to comply with the safety regulations. It is clear that Congress determined that there was a need for national uniformity and a need to adopt standard federal regulations to protect the public rather than allow for varied and inconsistent state law remedies. State law claims have been preempted by federal law. While the Federal Railroad Safety Act does provide for civil penalties to be imposed on non-compliant railroads, the legislation fails to provide any method to make injured parties whole and, in fact, closes every available door and remedy for injured parties. As a result, the judicial system is left with a law that is inherently unfair to innocent bystanders and property owners who may be injured by the negligent actions of railroad companies.”
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In conclusion, this case turns the Federal Rail Safety Act upside down–instead of the Court utilizing the Act to enforce safety, it uses the mere existence of the Act to wipe out any injured victim’s claim of violations of the Act.
Many courts have ruled that violations of the Act may constitute negligence. Here, the Court barred the plaintiff’s from even proving any violation based on the mere existence of a Federal Rail Safety Act. That is an absurd result not intended by passage of the Act.

Update: I have started a new blog (FELA Railroad Lawyer) dedicated solely to FELA law.