Norfolk Southern Railway Company v. Shanklin

PETITIONER: Norfolk Southern Railway Company
RESPONDENT: Shanklin
LOCATION: WILK Radio

DOCKET NO.: 99-312
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

CITATION: 529 US 344 (2000)
ARGUED: Mar 01, 2000
DECIDED: Apr 17, 2000

ADVOCATES:
Carter G. Phillips - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Gregory S. Coleman - Austin, Texas, argued the cause for the Texas, et al., as amici curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting the petitioner
Patricia A. Millett - Argued the cause for the United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of court, supporting the respondent
Thomas C. Goldstein - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

In 1993, Eddie Shanklin was struck and killed by a Norfolk Southern train at a railroad intersection. At the time of the accident, the intersection was equipped with advanced warning signs and reflectorized crossbucks, which were installed with federal funds under the Federal Railway-Highway Crossings Program and were fully compliant with the federal standards for such devices. Afterwards, Dedra Shanklin, Mr. Shanklin's widow, brought a diversity wrongful death action against Norfolk Southern. Shanklin alleged, based on Tennessee statutory and common law, that Norfolk Southern had been negligent by failing to maintain adequate warning devices at the crossing. Norfolk Southern moved for summary judgment on the ground that the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 (FRSA) pre-empted Shanklin's suit. The FRSA contains an express pre-emption provision, which allows States to enforce their railroad safety measures until the Secretary of Transportation prescribes a regulation or issues an order covering the subject matter of the State requirement. The District Court held that Shanklin's allegation that the signs installed at the crossing were inadequate was not pre-empted and, ultimately, entered judgement for her. In affirming, the Court of Appeals reasoned that federal funding alone was insufficient to trigger pre-emption of state tort actions under the FRSA. The court concluded that because the Tennessee Department of Transportation had installed the signs for the purpose of providing "minimum protection," no individualized determination of adequacy had be made by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) under the Crossings Program.

Question

Does the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 pre-empt tort claims, based on State statutory and common law, concerning a railroad's failure to maintain adequate warning devices at crossings where federal funds have participated in the installation of the devices?

Media for Norfolk Southern Railway Company v. Shanklin

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 01, 2000 in Norfolk Southern Railway Company v. Shanklin

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 17, 2000 in Norfolk Southern Railway Company v. Shanklin

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 99-312, Norfolk Southern Railway Company versus Shanklin will be announced by Justice O'Connor.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

This case is here on writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

In October 1993 the respondent’s husband was killed at a railroad grade crossing in Western Tennessee, when his vehicle was struck by a train operated by the petitioner railway company.

The respondent filed suit claiming among other things that the petitioner was negligent for failing to maintain adequate warning devices at the crossing.

The warning signs at the crossing had been installed by the State of Tennessee with funding from the Federal Highway Administration.

Petitioner moved for summary judgment on the ground that the claim was preempted by the Federal Railroad Safety Act.

The District Court held that the respondent’s inadequate warning device claim was not preempted, and the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk of the Court today, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

Under the Safety Act state law is preempted, if the Secretary of Transportation prescribes a regulation covering the subject matter of the state requirement.

In a case called CSX Transportation versis Easterwood, this Court held that the Secretary’s regulation governing the adequacy of warning devices installed at railroad crossings with the participation of federal funds, preempts state tort law when applicable.

The question here is whether this regulation is applicable whenever the state installs warning devices using federal funds.

We hold that it is.

Our decision in the earlier Easterwood case makes clear that the requirements spelled out in the regulation are mandatory for all devices installed with federal funds, and those provisions establish a federal standard for adequacy that prescribes the warning devices that have to be installed when federal funds are used.

Once the Federal Government has approved and funded the Crossing Improvement Project and the devices have been installed, state law governing the adequacy of those devices is displaced.

This is precisely the interpretation that the government urged us to adopt in the Easterwood case.

The government’s argument here that preemption does not occur until there has been an individualized engineering assessment of the crossing is not entitled to deference, as it is inconsistent with the language of the regulation and contradicts the government’s position in Easterwood, which we adopted as authoritative.

Justice Breyer has filed a concurring opinion; Justice Ginsburg has filed a dissenting opinion, which Justice Stevens has joined.