Justices to decide on suits involving train-car crashes

Supreme Court to hear case about liability of railroads in accidents at crossings

Liability suits

October 19, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide when railroads may be sued for fatal train-car collisions at highway crossings.

Six years after the court thought it had sorted out the law on crossing accidents, the justices found that lower federal courts are divided over whether to allow lawsuits based on state law to go forward against railroads.

If the court rules against such lawsuits, railroads could not be sued for crossing accidents, because no federal lawsuit could filed for a claim that a railroad lacked proper safety devices at a grade crossing.

The outcome of the case could have widespread effect. More than 200,000 rail-highway crossings exist in the United States, and more than 3,500 collisions occur each year at such sites.

Under a 1973 federal law, the Highway Safety Act, the government allocates money to try to eliminate hazards at crossings. But no money is to be paid unless adequate safety devices are installed at those rail-highway intersections.

Some lower courts have ruled that no state court case can proceed if the accident occurred at a crossing where federal money was used. Such funding, those courts have said, implies that federal officials are satisfied that the crossings have the necessary safety devices.

Other courts have ruled that state court lawsuits are barred only if federal officials had decided what types of safety devices should be installed at a crossing where an accident later occurred.

In a new case from Tennessee, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Cincinnati upheld a jury verdict of $430,765 for a Tennessee woman whose husband was killed at a grade crossing in 1993.

The widow won the damages award against Norfolk Southern Railway. She argued that although the rural crossing where a train smashed into her husband's car had the traditional warning crossbar sign, it lacked a barrier and warning lights.

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