According to statistics from the Federal Railroad Administration, there are more than 2,000 vehicle-train collisions at railroad crossings every year. When such accidents result in serious injury or death to innocent motorists, it is only logical the victims would want to hold the railroad responsible. But in some cases Georgia law may frustrate these efforts, as illustrated by a recent federal appeals court decision.
Long v. CSX Transportation, Inc.
This case involves a fatal accident that occurred at the Emory Street Crossing in Covington, Georgia. In 1974, the Georgia Department of Transportation contracted with a private railroad to install new gates and crossing signals at the Emory Street Crossing. Some years later, the railroad made some changes to the design, which resulted in a 36-foot gap between the installed protective devices and the main railroad line.
On the day of the accident, the victim approached the Emory Street Crossing and slowed her vehicle in response to the flashing safety lights, which were activated by an oncoming train. However, the vehicle came to a complete stop within the 36-foot gap, effectively trapping the vehicle. After about 30 seconds, the victim attempted to drive forward, and as she did, the train struck her vehicle, killing her and seriously injuring her husband, who was a passenger.
The husband subsequently sued the railroad in Georgia state court, alleging its failure to relocate the safety gates to reduce the 36-foot gap constituted negligence. The railroad removed (transferred) the lawsuit to federal court. The railroad then moved for summary judgment, arguing it had no “legal duty” to relocate the safety devices at the Emory Street Crossing. The trial judge agreed and dismissed the case. The victim’s husband appealed, but the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta upheld the lower court’s ruling.
As the 11th Circuit explained, under the original contract between the railroad and the State of Georgia, the safety devices installed at the Emory Street Crossing had to be no more than 15 feet from the railroad track. The husband argued this duty continued ever after the initial installation of the devices to the date of the accident. The court said that was not the case. Once the original installation was completed back in the 1970s, the contract specified the railroad would “operate and maintain” the safety devices at its own expense and discretion. In other words, the contract did not obligate the railroad to maintain the 15-foot gap in perpetuity.
Alternatively, the husband argued the railroad still had a “common law duty to relocate the protective devices” to prevent accidents like the one that killed his wife. Again, the court disagreed. Even if such a duty existed, the 11th Circuit said, it is preempted by state law as interpreted by the Georgia courts. More specifically, the Georgia Court of Appeals held in a 1999 case that the Georgia Code of Public Transportation, which was adopted in the early 1970s, “precludes a common-law cause of action against a railroad for the failure to install adequate protective devices at a grade crossing on a public road where the railroad has not been requested to do so by the appropriate governmental entity.”