Aug. 13, 2014 – A father and a police officer sustained injuries while trying to rescue a 23-month-old baby from a vehicle that was struck by a train during a Memorial Day parade. Recently, the Wisconsin Supreme Court majority made its ruling on the case.
A 5-2 majority – in Partenfelder v. Rhode, 2014 WI 80 (July 22, 2014) – ruled that federal law bars state law negligence claims against the railroad, Soo Line Railroad Company, because parades do not fit within the federal preemption exception for “specific, individual hazards” that a train line negligently disregards.
However, the majority ruled that the train line could be liable if the train crew was negligent in responding to the situation once they saw the vehicle on the tracks, because the vehicle became a “specific, individual hazard” once spotted.
A Train Wreck
Elm Grove, a Milwaukee suburb, was holding a Memorial Day Parade in 2009. Elm Grove police notified the rail authorities, requesting that conductors be alerted to the potential for “pedestrian and vehicle hazards on the tracks” due to the parade.
Conductors received special instructions to sound the bell and “look out for crowds of people within these limits.” There was no instruction to slow down.
Scott and Monica Partenfelder took their children to the Memorial Day parade in separate vehicles. As expected, traffic was congested.
As Monica’s Dodge Grand Caravan crossed the railroad tracks, traffic stopped. The vehicle was on the tracks, with cars blocking her escape.
Then the railroad crossings came down and the bells started ringing – a train was coming. Traffic started moving again but, just like a movie scene, the caravan’s wheels became stuck in the tracks and could not move. Scott and the officer sprung to action.
As the train crew applied the emergency brakes, the officer extracted Monica from the vehicle. Scott was attempting to unbuckle and remove his 23-month-old from the seat when the train hit the van. Scott and the officer were injured. The son was unharmed.
The train Event Data Recorder indicated the train was travelling 44.8 miles per hour when it hit the van. The speed limit for that train was 50 miles per hour.
Scott and Monica Partenfelder filed a lawsuit against Soo Line Railroad Company and related insurers. The officer filed a separate lawsuit. They argued that Soo Line was negligent because it had notice about the parade and did not take proper precautions.
Specifically, the Partenfelders argued that the Soo Line should have issued orders to go more slowly because the parade presented specific, individual hazard.
Soo Line argued that federal law preempted the claim. Specifically, the defendants argued that the Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA) preempts state law claims relating to train speed, because the FRSA expressly preempts state law claims in the area.
However, there’s an exception to the preemption rule. “[N]egligence claims based on a train’s failure to slow or stop in the face of a ‘specific, individual hazard’ fall outside preemption,” Justice David Prosser noted in his majority opinion.
Parade Not a Specific, Individual Hazard
A state appeals court ruled that the parade did pose a specific, individual hazard, and the railroad had notice of it. It remanded the case for a determination of negligence.
However, the supreme court majority disagreed that the parade presented a specific, individual hazard. It noted that such hazards cannot be generally dangerous conditions.
“To fall under the specific, individual hazard exception, the hazard must, as the name of the exception indicates, be a specific rather than a general danger,” Justice Prosser wrote. “In addition, the specific danger must pose the risk of an imminent collision.”
The majority said a parade presents heightened dangers, but does not necessarily make crossings less safe if drivers and pedestrians adhere to traffic laws.
Prosser also explained the practical effect of a ruling to the contrary, and rejected the claim that parades are specific and individual because they happen once per year.
“Letters could come to the railroad asking for slow orders for events from birthday and graduation parties to family reunions, to races and marathons, all of which might happen only one a year,” Justice Prosser wrote.
“Thus, to carve out an exception for parade traffic would be to poke an arbitrary hole in preemption,” he wrote. “It may be a small hole at first, but arbitrary holes are subject to expansion as litigants attempt to wedge their claims into the exception.”
While the plaintiff lost to preemption on that issue, the case is still alive. The majority said the trial court may hear evidence on whether the train crew was negligent after seeing the van, which would be characterized as a “specific, individual hazard.”
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson dissented, joined by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley. The dissenters noted that under FRSA, states can adopt and enforce more stringent requirements on railroad safety “if necessary to eliminate or reduce an essentially local safety or security hazard.” The parade, the dissent argued, was a local safety concern.
“Wisconsin tort law’s duty to exercise reasonable care can be violated even if the train speed limits set under federal law are being followed,” the chief justice wrote.
“The plaintiffs claim in the instant case is based on a unique occurrence that was likely to result in a collision, namely large numbers of cars and people would be on the tracks at a particular local event of which the railroad had been given notice,” she wrote.