CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Easterwood - Oral Argument - January 12, 1993

CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Easterwood

Media for CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Easterwood

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 21, 1993 in CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Easterwood

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 12, 1993 in CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Easterwood

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in number 91-790, CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Lizzie Beatrice Easterwood, and vice versa.

Mr. Trienens.

Howard J. Trienens:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This case arises from a railroad crossing accident in which respondent's husband died.

Every one of these crossing accidents is a serious matter, and when the number of accidents reached the thousands with the increase in highway traffic, this became a matter of national concern.

Congress faced up to this problem in the Federal Safety Act of 1970.

It authorized the Secretary of Transportation to issue regulations and standards for all areas of railroad safety and it directed the Secretary to undertake a coordinated effort toward solutions to the grade crossing problem under his authority under both the Railway Safety Act and the highway legislation.

Congress went further.

It directed that the Secretary's regulations shall be nationally uniform, and Congress provided a sweeping preemption provision as follows.

A State may adopt or continue in force any law, regulation, order, or standard relating to railroad safety until such time as the Secretary has adopted a rule, regulation, order, or standard covering the subject matter of such State requirement.

Now, the until such time language was to avoid a lapse in responsibilities between the time the statute passed and the regulations were issued.

In 1973, Congress went further.

It passed a highway safety act in which the States were required to survey all highway rail crossings and implement improvements.

Now, as authorized and directed by Congress, the Secretary has issued many, many regulations, and many of those include safety at grade crossings.

As to each such regulation, the subject matter which it covers, the State laws covering the same subject matter are no longer in force under section 434.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

At what time, at what date was the State law on grade crossings preempted in your view?

Howard J. Trienens:

1977.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

And that was at the time of the first regulation was issued?

Howard J. Trienens:

Yes.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

What did that regulation require?

Howard J. Trienens:

It provided that the responsibility for determining the selection of devices... and we're talking now only about that State law tort duty, not all of them, but the State law tort duty of picking a reasonable selection of a device, gate, sign, flashing lights, which device shall be done.

That responsibility was placed exclusively upon the State authorities.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Even there there was going to be a lapse between the time the State could implement its program and the time when the railroads might begin withdrawing from this field.

Don't you think?

Howard J. Trienens:

Well, possibly.

I think the literal reading of this and the practical reading of the statute is that when the responsibility shifted, the responsibility shifted.

Of course, this is now, 15, 20 years ago.

So the problem of the lapse doesn't apply in this case at all.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Well, except I think we should identify the point at which preemption occurred.

Howard J. Trienens:

Under the statute, the preemption occurred when the Secretary issued a regulation covering the subject matter of the State requirement.