Ohio Supreme Court Holds That Ohio’s Antiblocking Statute is Preempted by Federal Law and Cannot Be Enforced Against CSX

On August 17, 2022, the Supreme Court of Ohio issued a decision finding that Ohio’s antiblocking statute cannot be enforced against CSX Transportation, Inc. (CSX) on preemption grounds, reversing a Third District Court of Appeals decision.  State v. CSX Transp., Inc., 2022-Ohio-2832, 2022 WL 3372044 (Ohio 2022).

In 2018, the State of Ohio charged CSX with violating a state statute, R.C. 5589.21, five times in Union County, Ohio.  Id. at *1. The statute prohibits a stopped train from blocking a railroad crossing for more than five minutes, with limited exceptions.  Id.  A violation of the statute is a first-degree misdemeanor.  Id.  The Ohio General Assembly enacted the statute “to enhance public safety by ensuring the unhindered flow of emergency responders across railroad crossings.”  Id.  

CSX filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds that the statute was preempted by the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (ICCTA) and the Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA).  Id.  The trial court granted CSX’s motion to dismiss, relying on state and federal cases holding that blocked-crossing statutes are preempted by federal law.  Id. at *2.

The Third District Court of Appeals reversed, stating that the case “raise[d] a substantial constitutional question and present[ed] an issue of great public importance in Ohio regarding the fundamental police powers of the state legislature to protect the public safety and welfare, not to mention fundamental notions of federalism, which can appropriately be decided and resolved only by the Supreme Court of Ohio.”  State v. CSX Transp., Inc., 154 N.E.3d 327, 336 (Ohio Ct. App. 2020).

The Supreme Court of Ohio accepted CSX’s appeal to review: (1) whether R.C. 5589.21 is preempted by ICCTA, and (2) whether R.C. 5589.21 is preempted by the FRSA.  State v. CSX Transp., Inc., 2022-Ohio-2832, at *2.

With respect to ICCTA, the court stated that ICCTA grants the Surface Transportation Board (Board) “exclusive jurisdiction over ‘transportation by rail carriers’ and sets forth remedies with respect to operating rules, practices, routes, services, and facilities of rail carriers.” Id. at *1 (citing 49 U.S.C. § 10501(b)(1)).  When constructing ICCTA, the Supreme Court of Ohio has explained that the Board has “exclusive jurisdiction over all physical instrumentalities possessed and all services provided by rail carriers that are related to the movement of passengers and/or property.  This broad, sweeping language shows Congress’s intent to preempt any state effort to regulate rail transportation.”  State v. CSX Transp., Inc., 2022-Ohio-2832, at *3 (citing Girard v. Youngstown Belt Ry. Co., 979 N.E.2d 1273, 1281 (Ohio 2012)).  The court stated that “it takes little effort to conclude that R.C. 5589.21 directly regulates rail transportation,” and concluded that the statute “usurps the exclusive jurisdiction of the [B]oard and therefore is preempted by [ICCTA].”  State v. CSX Transp., Inc., 2022-Ohio-2832, at *3.

With respect to the FRSA, the court stated that the FRSA “provides a limited exception to [ICCTA’s] preemptive force, permitting the Secretary of Transportation and the states, where applicable, to regulate railroad safety.”  Id. at *1.  According to the court, ICCTA and the FRSA are in conflict, as applied to this case, since ICCTA gives the Board exclusive jurisdiction over transportation by rail, including railroad safety, and provides exclusive remedies, and the FRSA provides for regulation and remedies related to railroad safety to be established by the Secretary of Transportation and the states.  Id. at *4.

The court stated that, “[w]here there is no clear intention otherwise, a specific statute will not be controlled or nullified by a general one, regardless of the priority of enactment.”  Id. at *5 (citing Morton v. Mancari, 417 U.S. 535, 550-51 (1974)).  The court further stated that ICCTA is a general statute, overriding other state and federal laws regarding railroad transportation, and on the other hand, the FRSA permits the Secretary of Transportation and the states to regulate railroad safety.  State v. CSX Transp., Inc., 2022-Ohio-2832, at *5.  “Therefore, if R.C. 5589.21 is a law related to railroad safety, then it is not preempted by [ICCTA], and it may—or may not—be preempted by the [FRSA].”  Id.

The court found that R.C. 5589.21 “is not a law related to railroad safety, because a limit on the amount of time that a train may occupy a crossing is not related to the safe operation of trains.”  Id. at *1.  Thus, the court concluded that ICCTA “preempts an antiblocking statute like R.C. 5589.21,” and the FRSA does not exempt R.C. 5589.21 from ICCTA’s preemptive force, and, therefore, the statute cannot be enforced against CSX.  Id. at *6.  The court reversed the judgment of the Third District Court of Appeals and reinstated the trial court’s dismissal of all charges against CSX for violations of R.C. 5589.21.  Id.  In a concurring opinion, Justice Fischer stated that R.C. 5589.21 is more than simply an antiblocking statute; “it is a safety measure that promotes public safety and seeks to prevent any hindrance or inconvenience of travel for the public and for emergency responders relating to blocked railroads.”  Id. at *7.  In a dissenting opinion, Justice Brunner stated that “the FRSA, not ICCTA, is the appropriate federal statutory scheme for examining whether preemption applies,” and “as the law exists today, neither the ICCTA nor the FRSA preempts the operation and application of R.C. 5589.21.”  Id. at *17.

On August 26, 2022, the State moved for an order staying the issuance of the mandate pending the State’s forthcoming petition for a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court of Ohio issued an order on August 29, 2022, granting the State’s motion. 

Eighth Circuit Finds Plaintiffs’ Claims Related to a Railroad Crossing Collision to be Preempted by Federal Law

On August 8, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed a district court’s summary judgment holding in favor of Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad Corporation (DM&E).  Jesski v. Dakota, Minn. & E. R.R. Corp., 43 F.4th 861 (8th Cir. 2022).  In this case, a train owned by DM&E collided with a vehicle at a railroad crossing.  Id. at 863.  The collision killed the driver of the vehicle (James Blazier) and one of the passengers (Dixie Blazier), and severely injured the other passenger (Glenda Mundis).  Id.  The representative of Dixie Blazier’s estate along with Glenda Mundis and her husband (collectively, Appellants) argued that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to DM&E with respect to two of Appellants’ theories of negligence: (1) failure to keep a proper lookout, and (2) excessive speed.  Id. at 864.

First, Appellants asserted that DM&E’s locomotive crew negligently failed to keep a proper lookout.  Id.  Appellants argued that a reasonable jury could determine the locomotive crew was negligent by being inattentive and “doing nothing to avoid the collision after seeing the Blaziers’ SUV’s swerving and taking an ‘unwavering approach towards the crossing.’”  Id. Appellants also argued that DM&E negligently failed to train the crew on how to keep a proper lookout.  Id.  

The elements of a claim of negligence in Iowa are (1) existence of a duty, (2) breach of that duty, (3) causation, and (4) damages.  Id.  The Eighth Circuit found that in order to avoid a collision, the crew would have needed to observe that the vehicle presented a danger at least 5.4 seconds before the collision.  Id.  However, at 5.4 seconds before the collision, the crew had not yet seen the vehicle swerving and, according to the court, the crew “had the right to assume the Blaziers’ SUV would indeed stop” before reaching the crossing.  Id. at 864-65.  As such, the court held that Appellants “failed to present sufficient evidence of causation because they failed to show [the locomotive crew] could have recognized the imminent danger of the Blaziers’ SUV in time to avoid the collision even had they kept a proper lookout.”  Id. at 864.

Second, Appellants claimed DM&E's locomotive crew acted negligently by traveling at an excessive speed which caused the locomotive's collision with the vehicle.  Id. at 865.  The Eighth Circuit agreed with the district court opinion that this claim was preempted by the Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA).  Id.  Under the authority granted by the FRSA and the Secretary of Transportation, the Federal Railroad Administration prescribes nationally uniform speed limits for locomotives that generally preempt state law excessive speed limits.  Id. at 866 (citing 49 C.F.R. § 213.9; CSX Transp., Inc. v. Easterwood, 507 U.S. 658, 675 (1993)).  However, the FRSA also clarifies that “an action under state law seeking damages for personal injury, death, or property damage is not preempted by federal regulation where the action is based on a railroad's failure to comply with the standard of care provided by federal regulation.”  43 F.4th at 866 (citing 49 U.S.C. § 20106(b)).  

In this case, the parties did not dispute that DM&E's locomotive was traveling at 22.1 miles per hour, below the general federal speed limit of 40 miles per hour for locomotives on a “Class 3” track.  43 F.4th at 866 (citing 49 C.F.R. § 213.9(a)).  However, the parties disputed whether one headlight and one ditch light on the locomotive were not working prior to the collision.  43 F.4th at 866.  Appellants argued that the locomotive violated 49 C.F.R. § 229.125(d), “which requires lead locomotives traveling above twenty miles per hour over public highway-rail crossings to have operative auxiliary lights and headlights,” and that the collision would not have occurred if the locomotive was traveling under twenty miles per hour.  Id.  The Eighth Circuit disagreed with Appellants’ argument, noting that 49 C.F.R. § 229.125(d) “is violated by improper lighting, not excessive speed,” and that Appellants did not argue that the collision could have been prevented with operative headlights and ditch lights.  Id.  The court further held that even if the lights were inoperative, the Appellants’ excessive speed claim would still be preempted and that Appellants “cannot rely on the cover of alleged lighting violations to slip an excessive speed theory past preemption.”  Id. at 867.  Consequently, the Eighth Circuit held that Appellants’ excessive speed claim was preempted by 49 C.F.R. § 213.9 and the FRSA. Id.

Therefore, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of DM&E, holding that the railroad was not liable for negligence for failure to keep a proper lookout and that Appellants’ excessive speed claim was preempted.  Id.

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