Grade-crossing collisions–accidents where trains hit vehicles–are a surprisingly common occurrence in the U.S. railroad industry. Norfolk Southern, one of the largest railroads on the east coast, reported approximately 2,500 grade-crossing collisions over a four-year period–more than one accident per day. Railroad employees are frequently injured in these collisions, and unlike automobile-only accidents, their ability to recover damages may depend on federal, rather than state, law.
The Georgia Supreme Court recently addressed one such case. The plaintiff was a Norfolk Southern conductor. In 2007, the conductor’s train hit a logging truck in Dodge County. The conductor suffered severe back injuries and has not returned to work for the past six years.
The conductor sued Norfolk Southern alleging negligence. He claimed the company failed to train him properly “on how to protect himself in the event of a grade-crossing collision.” The conductor produced three experts, including a former Norfolk Southern trainmaster, who offered evidence tying the conductor’s injuries to a lack of proper training.
A state trial court granted summary judgment to Norfolk Southern, however, agreeing with the company’s claim that it “had no duty to provide its employees with any specific safety training regarding what to do in the event of a grade-crossing accident and declining to impose such a duty” where the conductor couldn’t prove any training would have prevented his injuries. The conductor appealed. The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the decision to grant summary judgment. The Supreme Court then granted Norfolk Southern’s petition to review that decision.
Federal Law Preserves State Negligence Claims
Ultimately, in Norfolk Southern Railway Company v. Zeagler the Supreme Court agreed that Norfolk Southern was not entitled to summary judgment. This case, the court noted, is not governed by traditional Georgia tort law, but rather the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), a 1908 law passed by Congress to regulate railroad safety. FELA authorizes an employee to sue a railroad in state court for injury arising from the company’s negligence. The first step in proving negligence is establishing the railroad owed a duty to the employee. This is a question of law for the judge to decide, not a question of fact for the jury.
The trial court that previously ruled for Norfolk Southern said the railroad had no duty to train the conductor with respect to grade-crossing collisions. The Supreme Court said that was incorrect. It cited a number of FELA decisions from other state courts clearly establishing a “duty to provide such safety training does exist.” As to the other elements of negligence under FELA–was the harm reasonable foreseeable, did Norfolk Southern breach its duty of care, did the company’s negligence play any part in the conductor’s injuries–those were all factual issues for a jury to resolve. The conductor presented more than sufficient evidence, the Supreme Court said, to survive summary judgment on these issues.
Norfolk Southern also argued that any claim it failed to properly train the conductor was “preempted and precluded” by federal safety rules made by the Federal Railroad Authority (FRA). Some federal courts have said FRA regulations may preempt state-law negligence claims like the one in this case. But the Georgia Supreme Court said preemption is not a valid issue here, because Norfolk Southern couldn’t even identify any FRA rule that specifically covered employee safety training with respect to handling grade-crossing collisions.