Railroad Track & Trestle Injuries

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August 16, 2009

When injuries occur on railroad tracks, railroad trestles, and on land on which railroads own a right-of-way, and railroad companies are defendants, often a complex array of federal and state laws are involved, including preemption claims.[1] The Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970[2] ("FRSA") vested broad authority in the Secretary of Transportation to implement and administer the Act. Congress used expansive language in describing the purpose of the FRSA. "The purpose of this chapter is to promote safety in every area of railroad operations and reduce railroad-related accidents and incidents."[3]

The United States Supreme Court held that federal regulations issued pursuant to the FRSA preempt state law regarding train operating speeds.[4] The Court found that 49 C.F.R. § 213.9(a) explicitly addresses the maximum allowable operating speeds. Moreover, related safety regulations reveal that the speed limits were adopted only after the dangers posed by track conditions were taken into account.[5] The Court noted that the overall context of the federal regulations preempt state regulation with respect to train velocity.[6]

In regard to walkways on railroad trestles, in contrast, there is no clear Congressional mandate preempting state causes of action alleging failure to install or maintain adequate walkways on railroad trestles.[7] Although FRSA § 20139 mandates in relevant part: "the Secretary of Transportation shall prescribe regulations and issue orders ... for ... walkways on bridges over bodies of water" there are no regulations to date concerning walkways on railroad bridges and trestles.[8]

Pedestrian accidents along railroad rights-of-way in densely populated areas raise similar issues of preemption.[9] Although there is very little federal case law on the subject, one court noted that the FRSA explicitly "permits states to continue in force any law, rule, regulation, order, or standard relating to railroad safety until such time as the Secretary has adopted [legislation] covering the subject matter of such State requirement unless the state [requirement] ... is incompatible with federal law or creates an undue burden on interstate commerce."[10] The court referred to precedent in which several state courts had continued common law doctrine in the absence of affirmative federal regulation on the subject matter.

When injuries occur on property owned by railroads that railroads have made available to the public, railroads are sometimes immune from liability under Connecticut's Recreational Use Statute.[11] In Kurisoo V. Providence & Wooster Railroad Company, 68 F.3d 591 (2d Cir. 1995), P&W owned a railroad right-of-way extending for several miles along the Thames River between Groton and Norwich. Kurisoo was fishing at a popular fishing area located on P&W property when a passing train collided with a rock and caused the rock to strike Kurisoo, severely injuring his leg. Thereafter, Kurisoo underwent numerous surgical procedures, culminating in amputation below the knee. The court held that P&W Railroad was entitled to the immunity provided to landowners who make available their land to the public for recreational use, in the absence of any finding of willful or malicious conduct. Id. [12]

Allegations of inadequate railroad security raise an entirely different spectrum of issues. Matters of safety specific to railroads include boarding or deboarding a train, or installation of safety signals along the track.[13] A premises liability expert is a distinct category from a railroad security expert. For instance, safety measures regarding boarding trains are specific to railroads for the purpose of the admissibility of expert testimony.[14]

In Sullivan v. Metro-North Commuter R.R. Co., 292 Conn. 150, 160 (2009), the administrator's decedent was a passenger on one of Metro-North's commuter trains. He arrived at its station late one night and soon had a brief encounter with a group of men at a local nightclub. The encounter became hostile. The decedent walked, then ran, away. He made his way to a stairway next to a street underneath the train station. A physical altercation with the group occurred. A group member then fatally shot him. The administrator sued, inter alia, the railroad company and alleged its inadequate security proximately caused the death. The trial court barred the administrator's premises security expert from testifying because he was not a railroad security expert. It also instructed the jury on the superseding cause doctrine. The jury returned a verdict for the railroad company. The Appellate Court affirmed. The Connecticut Supreme Court found that the testimony of the premises security expert was admissible under Conn. Code Evid. R. 7-2 because the jury was deciding a premises security issue rather than a railroad security issue, and the superseding cause doctrine had not necessarily been barred where a criminal event allegedly superseded a defendant's tortuous conduct.

[1] Lin v. Amtrak, 2002 Conn. Super. LEXIS 501.

[2] 45 U.S.C §§ 20101 et. seq.

[3] 49 U.S.C. § 20101.

[4] CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Easterwood, 507 U.S. 658, 676 (1993).

[5] CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Easterwood, 507 U.S. 658, 674 (1993).

[6] CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Easterwood, 507 U.S. 658, 674 (1993).

[7] Lin v. Amtrak, 2002 Conn. Super. LEXIS 501.

[8] Lin v. Amtrak, 2002 Conn. Super. LEXIS 501.

[9] 45 U.S.C. § 433(a) amended as 49 U.S.C. § 20134, requires the Secretary of Transportation to consider problems associated with pedestrian accidents along railroad rights-of-way in densely populated areas.

[10] Edwards v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 567 F. Supp. 1087, 1100 (D.C. 1983).

[11] Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 52-557f to 52-557i.

[12] See also Lin v. AMTRAK, 277 Conn. 1 (2006).

[13] See Sullivan v. Metro-North Commuter R.R. Co., 292 Conn. 150, 160 (2009).

[14] See, e.g. Maguire v. National Railroad Passenger Corp., 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5226.