January 25, 2010

Why You Can't Get Your Day in Court After a Train Disaster and What the Federal Railroad Administration Needs to Do About It

Cross-posted from ACSblog.

The citizens of Minot, North Dakota suffered a grave injustice on January 18, 2002 when a train derailment bathed much of that small town in a toxic cloud of poisonous gas that killed one person and injured almost 1,500 others. A detailed investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the derailment was most likely caused by fractures in temporary joints that the railroad had installed to repair the track.

When the victims sued the railroad for damages caused by its negligent maintenance, they found the courthouse doors locked. A federal district court held that their claims were preempted by the Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA) of 1970, which contained a "preemption" clause that Congress enacted to prevent states and localities from enacting regulations that were inconsistent with the regulations issued by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the federal agency that Congress created to protect citizens from irresponsible railroads.

The court held that because Congress empowered the FRA to regulate railroad safety, injured citizens could not sue the railroads when they operated their trains unsafely -- whether or not they complied with FRA requirements. Other courts have issued similar decisions in cases involving train collisions, derailments and grade-crossing accidents.

During the Bush Administration, the FRA aggressively asserted its newfound power to protect railroads by preempting state common law. A new white paper issued by the Center for Progressive Reform (which I co-authored) explores the injustice inherent in this interpretation of the statute.

Proponents of preemption argue that the FRA is fully capable of protecting U.S. citizens without the help of juries applying vague common law standards to reach potentially inconsistent results in 50 different jurisdictions. The citizens of Minot know that's not true.

The 400 inspectors working for the Federal Railroad Administration are responsible for 1.2 million rail cars operating on nearly 300,000 miles of track. In 2003, the FRA fully investigated only four of the nearly 3,000 grade-crossing accidents that occurred and imposed fines for only about 2 percent of the violations it discovered. The agency's solution to its resource problem is to rely heavily upon the railroads themselves to inspect rolling stock and track for compliance with FRA safety regulations. That puts the fox firmly in charge of the henhouse, with predictable results.

The CPR report documents how the FRA has long been thoroughly "captured" by the industry it is supposed to be regulating. High-level agency officials and industry lawyers and executives move seamlessly through the agency's rapidly revolving door.

The notion that common law is unnecessary because the FRA does such a splendid job of guarding public safety is thus a cruel joke. The victims of irresponsible railroad behavior and their families have suffered in silence. And those of us who live near railroads or frequently encounter railroad crossings are at the mercy of railroad companies that know full-well that they are unlikely to be called to account by a resource-starved federal agency.

Congress reacted to this obvious injustice in 2007 by adding a proviso to the preemption section of the FRSA stating that it did not block citizens seeking damages in cases where the plaintiff alleged that the railroad had failed to comply with a federal standard, one of its own rules, or valid state law. This specific injunction should have sent a message to the FRA and the federal courts that they were to get out of the business of preempting state common law claims when the railroad violated valid state or federal requirements or one of its own safety regulations. Yet, an FRA regulation, issued in April 2008, stated that the amendment merely established "rare" exceptions to the general rule that state common law claims were preempted.

And in the early months of the Obama administration, when the president had not yet appointed the agency's new leaders, FRA continued to write broad preemption language in the preambles to its rules. Several lower court decisions have likewise narrowly limited the amendment and have continued to hold that valid common law claims are preempted. Last May, President Obama issued a memorandum to the agencies instructing them to preempt state common law only when they have a legal basis for doing so and only when the preemption satisfies the requirements of Executive Order 13132, which expresses a policy of respect for the authority of the state agencies and courts to regulate and adjudicate.

The FRA should heed the president's orders. And it should send a message to the courts by recanting previous preemption statements, repealing language in existing regulations preempting state common law claims, including provisions in future rules preserving state common law claims, and sending amicus briefs -- vigorously defending the right of plaintiffs to sue irresponsible railroads -- to courts that are asked to dismiss cases on preemption grounds. Our safety deserves no less.

Thomas McGarity, CPR Member Scholar; Endowed Chair in Admin. Law, University of Texas School of Law. Bio.

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