In a heart-stopping 2009 collision, a young Wisconsin mother’s van became stuck on railroad tracks between crossing gates right before a popular Memorial Day parade began. A local police officer freed the woman and returned to the vehicle with her husband to save their 2-year-old child, who was strapped into the van’s backseat. While the child emerged unscathed, the police officer and husband sustained serious injuries. The officer’s injuries even forced him to retire from his position within law enforcement.

The right to be compensated

As one might expect, the couple and the police officer filed suit shortly thereafter, alleging negligence under state law and seeking damages to assist them with the costs of recovering from the accident. The railroad, however, argued that federal railroad law and regulations preempted the claims in this case and that it had fully complied with them.

While the lower court agreed with the railroad, the appeals court reversed in favor of the family and policeman, permitting them to sue in state court. It now appears that the Wisconsin Supreme Court is going to hear arguments from both sides and make the ultimate decision about whether this lawsuit is going to take place or not.

What’s at stake

Under the Federal Railroad Safety Act, the railroad would probably not be found liable, since the railroad company complied with federal regulations. However, if a narrow exception applies, such that state law covers the case, as the plaintiffs argue, then the railroad might be found negligent for failing to slow down when it was aware of the parade. The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision regarding which law applies in all likelihood is going to determine the actual outcome of the case.

The big picture

According to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the bigger issue here is whether local governments are empowered to control train speeds based on traffic levels. Railroads object to this interpretation, claiming that they would constantly be required to change their standard operating procedures for everyday traffic-producing events. Public health advocates point to the recent crash in Wisconsin as evidence that this is exactly what public safety requires.

Legal issues in train accident cases can be extremely complicated and are best entrusted to attorneys with extensive knowledge in this specific practice area.