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Pearson v. Columbus and Greenville Railway

December 08, 1998


Before Bridges, C.j., Diaz And Southwick, JJ

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Southwick, J.

DATE OF JUDGMENT: August 13, 1996






¶1. This is the second appeal in a personal injury suit brought by Bernice Pearson against the Columbus & Greenville Railway. The suit arose from a 1991 grade crossing accident in which Mrs. Pearson ran into a freight car that was part of a stopped train owned and operated by the Railway. Summary judgment was granted to the Railway in 1993, based on federal preemption of all claims. In the first appeal, though agreeing that Mrs. Pearson's claims regarding the adequacy of warnings of the grade crossing were potentially preempted by federal standards, this Court remanded in order that certain factual issues regarding preemption could be addressed. Left unaffected by our ruling were claims regarding the visibility of the stopped freight car.

¶2. After remand, the trial court found that the factual predicates existed for federal preemption of the claims regarding the grade crossing warnings. Claims regarding the visibility of the freight car were abandoned. Summary judgment was accordingly entered for the Railway. Mrs. Pearson appeals, arguing that the holding of the initial opinion of this Court was in error. She further alleges that disputes of material fact continue to exist. We find no error and affirm.

¶3. Since our rulings on the initial appeal are central to the review that we perform now, we incorporate that opinion here. Opinion of Court of Appeals, October 17, 1995

¶4. Bernice Pearson brought suit against the Columbus & Greenville Railway Company seeking compensation for injuries suffered when she late at night drove her automobile into the side of a standing gondola car parked across a public street. The circuit court of Sunflower County granted summary judgment to the Railway. The issue below and here is whether recent United States Supreme Court authority regarding federal preemption applies to the facts of this case and bars Pearson's claims. The factual predicates for preemption regarding the warning signs were not sufficiently developed. However, even if those facts are proved, there is no preemption affecting the conspicuousness of the freight car at the crossing. We reverse and remand.


¶5. The Columbus & Greenville Railway operates trains through the Mississippi Delta town of Moorhead. That town has a poetic association with this railroad. The tracks of the Columbus & Greenville's predecessor, the Southern Railway, and the tracks of the Yazoo Delta Railroad, nicknamed the "Yellow Dog," intersected at Moorhead. The town became known, including through a 1901 blues song composed by W.C. Handy, as the place "where the Southern crosses the Dog." Marie M. Hemphill, Fevers, Floods, and Faith: A History of Sunflower County, 1844-1976, privately pub., Indianola (1980), at 261. Its more important and prosaic association for purposes of this suit is that an accident occurred there.

¶6. After dark on February 19, 1991, Bernice Pearson drove her automobile into the side of a standing gondola car, which is a freight car with sides but no roof, typically used for hauling bulk products that can be loaded from the top. The only warning of the approaching railroad crossing was a crossbuck, which is the typical unlighted sign consisting of a white "X" that says "RAILROAD CROSSING," attached to a pole, and placed within a few feet of the tracks. The freight car had been stationary for a number of minutes as part of a switching maneuver.

¶7. In January, 1992 Pearson brought suit against the Railway. Generally she claimed the crossing was unreasonably dangerous, but specifically her allegations of negligence were these: 1) The circumstances at this crossing made a freight car unreasonably difficult to see; reasonable and adequate warnings of the freight car's presence were needed such as through a flagman, portable lighting, flares or barricades. 2) leaving the freight car across the roadway was negligence.

¶8. On October 5, 1993, summary judgment was granted to the Railway based on federal preemption. In an earlier order, the court found that Pearson "does not complain of the adequacy of the permanent warning devices at the crossing. Rather, Plaintiff contends that under the conditions and circumstances existing at the time of the collision, Defendant should have taken additional steps to warn her of the blockage of the crossing."

¶9. Besides Pearson and the Railway, joining in this action as amici curiae are the Association of American Railroads and the American Shortline Railroad Association. These amici described themselves as associations consisting of "virtually all Class I [the largest] freight railroads and Amtrak, and most regional and short line railroads in America." Also joining the action as amicus is the United States government, advising us of its interpretation of federal preemption.*fn1


¶10. It is an almost trite truism, but one that controls the outcome in this case:

"The Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; . . . shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby. . . ." U.S. Const., Article VI, Cl. 2.

By its terms, the laws of the United States which are supreme must be made "in Pursuance" of the Constitution. The United States Constitution delegates powers to the federal government. Without the delegation those powers would not be possessed. In explicit recognition of that fact, Amendment X was added to the Constitution as part of the Bill of Rights: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." U.S. Const. Am. X.

¶11. Much of the early judicial and even political history of this republic concerns the defining of the powers that were delegated and those which the states and people reserved. Much federal legislation that affects the states has been considered authorized under the nearly plenary delegation of power to Congress to regulate interstate commerce. Congress' justification for its actions is usually approved even when that justification stretches common sense definitions of interstate commerce. Occasionally, though, this stretch has snapped the indulgent attitude of the United States Supreme Court. United States v. Lopez, -- U.S. --, 115 S. Ct. 1624 (1995).

¶12. The issue before us concerns safety at railroad crossings. A national railroad system, composed of its independent companies, is quintessentially part of interstate commerce. Thus, the question is not whether the federal government has authority to preempt state laws in the area of safety at railroad crossings, but whether the federal government has preempted, and if so, to what extent the facts of this case are within the scope of the preemption.

¶13. The focus of our analysis is the breadth of a 1993 United States Supreme Court decision. CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Easterwood, -- U.S. --, 113 S. Ct. 1732 (1993). That case, as does this one here, involved a collision between a train and a vehicle at a railroad crossing. Thomas Easterwood was killed when the truck he was driving was struck by a moving train owned by CSX Transportation. His widow brought suit, complaining that CSX was negligent for failing to maintain adequate warning devices at the crossing and for operating the train at an excessive speed. The Court described the relevant federal legislation as being intended "to promote safety in all areas of railroad operations and to reduce railroad-related accidents . . . ." Easterwood, 113 S.Ct. at 1736 (quoting 45 U.S.C. § 421). Two statutes operate in this area, the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970,*fn2 codified at 45 U.S.C. §§ 421-447; and the Highway Safety Act of 1973, codified at 23 U.S.C. §§ 101-133.

¶14. These Acts establish a comprehensive set of duties on the states, the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration, to improve railroad crossing safety. Easterwood, 113 S. Ct. at 1736-37. After rejecting several possible federal preemption arguments made by the railroad, the Easterwood Court found that two regulations adopted under the authority of the Highway Safety Act did result in federal preemption, but only "when they are applicable." Id. at 1740-41. A brief description of the statutory program that results in preemption follows.

¶15. The Federal Railroad Safety Act compels preemption in this way:

"The Congress declares that laws, rules, regulations, orders and standards relating to railroad safety shall be nationally uniform to the extent practicable. A State may adopt or continue in force any law, rule, regulation, order, or standard relating to railroad safety until such time as the Secretary [of Transportation] has adopted a rule, regulation, order, or standard covering the subject matter of each State requirement. A State may adopt or continue in force an additional or more stringent law. . . when necessary to eliminate or reduce an essentially local safety hazard, and when not incompatible with any Federal law, rule, regulation, order, or standard, and when not creating an undue burden on interstate commerce." 45 U.S.C. § 434.

¶16. The Highway Safety Act of 1973:

"makes federal funds available to the States to improve grade crossings, in return for which the States must "conduct and systematically maintain a survey of all highways to identify those railroad crossings which may require . . . protective devices, and establish and implement a schedule of projects for this purpose." Easterwood 113 S. Ct. at 1737 (quoting 23 U.S.C. § 130(d)).

This makes evident that the states administer the program, but pursuant to ...

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