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Train and Car Collide in Texas

railroad crossingIn a recent Texas train accident case, the plaintiffs appealed a summary judgment granted in favor of a railroad company and a corporation. The railroad company claimed that the plaintiff driver had caused a crash with its train by failing to yield the right of way at an intersection of tracks and highway. At the time of the accident, the plaintiff had been warned of a crossing by a black and white railroad crossing sign, but he ignored the warning and stopped in such a way that he blocked the tracks.

The railroad company claimed the plaintiff was negligent and negligent per se. The driver answered the petition and raised affirmative defenses. Later, the driver counterclaimed, arguing the railroad company had legally caused him disabling injuries. He raised respondeat superior, negligence, negligence per se, and gross negligence as theories of recovery. After that, the parties filed amended petitions to add the plaintiff driver as a co-plaintiff against the railroad company and corporation.

The railroad company moved for summary judgment, arguing it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the plaintiff had stopped the car he was driving in such a way that he parked the trailer on the tracks and failed to provide the right of way to the train. The driver responded to the motion but attached no evidence. Later, he filed a statement and an actuarial report.

The railroad company filed sanctions motions against the driver’s attorneys. The court sanctioned the attorneys and months later granted the summary judgment motion. The trial court ordered that the plaintiff take nothing.

The plaintiff argued that the 2007 Congressional Amendments to the Federal Railroad Safety Act superseded the defendant’s federal preemption defense. Federal law can supersede state law when Congress expressly preempts it, when Congress inferentially preempts it, or when federal and state laws actually do conflict. The Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 was enacted to promote safety in all railroad operations and to reduce railroad-related collisions. This law authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to put forth regulations for railroad safety.

In this case, federal funds were used to install tape during a federal safety improvement program on the railroad track. There were multiple regulations put in place to address warning sign device installations at railroad crossings. Specifically, adequate warning devices are supposed to include automatic gates with flashing light signals when any of six enumerated conditions is there. If none is there, certain agencies have the authority to determine which warning device should be installed.

State tort claims that advance warning signs and reflectorized crossing signs are inadequate are preempted by FRSA. In this case, it was uncontested that federal funds were used to improve the warning device. The State and the railway company had agreed to upgrade the warning signs at the crossings. Federal funds financed 90% of the upgrade project. The claims were preempted.

The plaintiff argued that FRSA amendments eliminated federal preemption. The appellate court explained this argument had been rejected in federal courts. The plaintiff driver also argued that it was inappropriate for summary judgment to be granted for the railroad company because the rig the plaintiff was driving was in accord with state law about the length of the rig, so his actions in stopping on the tracks couldn’t be the legal cause of the collision.

The appellate court explained that when there is a law forbidding a particular act, it creates the standard of reasonable care, such that an unexcused statutory violation is considered negligence as a matter of law. The party that claims negligence per se has the burden of showing a statutory violation.

The railroad company’s negligence and negligence per se causes of action were based on the plaintiff driver’s violation of a duty imposed by sections 545.251 and 545.302 of the Texas Transportation Code.┬áThese code sections require a driver to stop clear of a crossing when there is a signal warning that a train is approaching, the crossing gate is lowered, the engine emits an audible signal, and the engine is an immediate hazard, the approaching train is clearly visible, or the operator is required to stop because of a traffic control signal or device, a statutory rule, or another law.

A police report showed that in this case, the plaintiff had proceeded over the tracks with a 40-foot trailer and stopped at the next stop sign to make a left turn. His car cleared the tracks, but the trailer was left partly on the tracks. He had waited two minutes when the train hit the part of the trailer on the tracks. The driver admitted he stopped on the tracks, but he argued that the distance between the tracks and the stop sign was insufficient and that the length of his car and trailer were lawful.

The appellate court found that he’d failed to yield the right of way and that summary judgment was proper. It affirmed the judgment.

If you are injured by someone else, the experienced San Antonio train accident attorneys at Carabin & Shaw may be able to represent you and develop a sound strategy for handling your case. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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