Third Circuit Issues Important Opinion Regarding Preemption of Dangerous Railroad Crossing Claims

What Happened:

A recent case before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals dealt with the Federal Railroad Safety Act and concluded the FRSA does not preempt cases about railroad crossing negligence.

The case, Zimmerman v. Norfolk Southern Corp., involved a motorcyclist, Robert Zimmerman, who was injured at a Norfolk Southern railroad crossing. Zimmerman was riding his motorcycle early one evening in 2008 when he approached a dark crossing that was obscured by a building next to the tracks. When Zimmerman was less than seventy-five feet from the track, he noticed that a train was rapidly approaching. Zimmerman attempted to stop, but his front brake locked up and he was thrown off the bike and over his handlebars, hitting the side of the Norfolk Southern train headfirst.

The horrible accident left Zimmerman partially paralyzed. In the aftermath, Zimmerman filed suit against Norfolk Southern, claiming the company was liable because its train was traveling at more than twice the speed limit for that section of track and that the railroad crossing was generally unsafe.

Unfortunately for unsuspecting motorists like Zimmerman, railroads are one of the most heavily regulated industries in the United States. Many of these regulations, including the Federal Railroad Safety Act, preempt state tort claims against railroad companies. When Zimmerman brought his case before a district court in Pennsylvania the presiding judge granted Norfolk Southern’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that many of Zimmerman’s claims were preempted by FRSA.

In an important opinion, the Third Circuit disagreed, reversing the district court in part. Specifically, with regard to the excessive speed claim, the Third Circuit held that FRSA did not preempt the claim because the Act created a federal standard of care owed by railroad companies. The railroad companies are thus responsible for compliance with the speed limits contained in FRSA and Zimmerman was given the go ahead to pursue such a claim.

The Third Circuit also found that FRSA did not prevent Zimmerman from claiming that Norfolk Southern failed to maintain a safe crossing area. The issue of whether a railroad company provided an appropriate sight distance is within the realm of issues capable of being litigated by injured plaintiffs.

Only with regard to the issue of per se negligence did the Third Circuit agree with the district court, saying FRSA does preempt such claims from being raised.

The Virginia Railroad Accident Attorney’s Perspective:

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation every year there are nearly 6,000 train/passenger vehicle crashes. The moral of the story is clear: trains are incredibly dangerous machines and should never be taken lightly. The size, weight and speed of a fully loaded freight train make them devastatingly dangerous and sure to crush anything in their path.

Given the danger posed by trains, it’s critical that pedestrians and motorists alike steer clear of train tracks. Pedestrians should never walk in or along railroad tracks and drivers should be extra vigilant whenever they are on or approaching a railroad crossing. Don’t rely on warning lights or signals, malfunctions can happen anytime and you must remain alert.

If you’ve been involved in a railroad accident and have questions about what to do next, consider consulting our experienced Virginia (VA) railroad accident lawyers who can guide you through the sometimes confusing claims process.

Potentially Helpful Information: 

My firm has successfully handled many cases on behalf of those injured in railroad accidents. In one case, my client was driving his two sons over a railroad crossing in Virginia on his way to daycare when a Norfolk Southern freight train appeared out of the blue and slammed into his car. Miraculously, no one died in the wreck though the father and the two young children suffered serious injuries including a skull fracture. My firm brought suit on behalf of the injured young children and was able to secure tens of thousands of dollars in a settlement with Norfolk Southern.

My firm represents not only members of the public, but conductorsengineers and railroad track workers who spend their days doing dangerous work on the nation’s railways. If you have been injured in a freight train or passenger rail accident and are looking for more information, consider downloading this free report written by our experienced attorneys who specialize in railroad injury cases.

Have Questions? Check Out Our FAQs

If you’ve been injured in a railroad accident it’s understandable that you might have a lot of questions given the unfamiliar terrain. You may be wondering about what kinds of damages are available to youwhat you need to be able to prove, or what types of injuries you can sue to recover compensation for. You can read the answers to these and other questions by reading through our online library of lawyers’ answers to frequently asked questions about railroad accidents and injuries.


Richard N. Shapiro
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Personal Injury & Wrongful Death Lawyer Serving Va Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake & all of Virginia
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