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Supreme Court to rule on RR's responsibility for safety at crossings

  Railwatch : Sunday February 27, 2000
Case Overview -- Norfolk Southern Railway vs. Dedra Shanklin

On March 1st the U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing a very important case that will have a tremendous impact on railroad and motorist safety. The case is Norfolk Southern Railway vs. Dedra Shanklin. This case will determine whether or not railroads can be held responsible for their operations and in particular, safety equipment at railroad crossings. Since 80% of the nation’s public railroad crossings are not protected by lights and gates, the decision could have a profound impact on the motoring public and could result in saving lives.

The Case
Eddie Shanklin was killed October 3, 1993, when his car was struck by a train at a crossing in Gibson County, Tennessee. There were no lights or gates at the crossing where Mr. Shanklin was killed -- nothing to warn him of an approaching train. The crossing was only marked by a reflectorized sign, known as a "crossbuck."

Shanklin’s widow, Dedra, sued Norfolk Southern in state court, saying the railroad failed to install adequate warning devices at the crossing. The railroad argued that it is not liable in state court since the crossing was installed using federal money.

A state judge let the trial go forward, however, and a jury ordered the railroad to pay Mrs. Shanklin $430,765 in damages. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that verdict, saying the expenditure of federal money is not sufficient by itself to immunize the railroads from blame. Unless the Department of Transportation specifically determines that automatic gates are not needed to make the crossing safe, the court ruled, the railroad can be held responsible for failing to install such devices.

In the granted appeal, Norfolk Southern’s lawyers said railroads should not be responsible for safety devices chosen by the state and funded by the federal government. The railroad’s lawyers said the federal government’s authorization of money for warning signs without automatic gates and lights amounts to a decision that the signs are sufficient. Dedra Shanklin’s lawyer said federal standards required automatic gates and flashing lights at crossings similar to the one where her husband’s accident occurred.

80% of Crossings Don’t Have Lights and Gates
Currently, nationwide, 80% of all public railroad crossings don’t have lights and gates. In many cases, railroad crossings are extremely difficult to see because of overgrown vegetation or other visual obstructions that restrict line-of-sight. These are the crossings where drivers have no warning of approaching trains. These are the crossings where there’s no question of a driver trying to beat the gates because there are no gates. And according to the National Transportation Safety Board, approximately 60% of all fatalities nationwide occur at these types of unprotected crossings.

Railroads Blame Motorists
Unfortunately, that part of the story often goes untold, because the railroads have used their considerable resources on a different message that railroad crossing safety is entirely up to, or the fault of, careless drivers. The federal government has largely left the responsibility of regulating the railroads to the railroads. And what the railroads have chosen to do is throw the responsibility on everybody else motorists, local governments, state governments and so on.

Time for Railroad Responsibility
It’s time for the railroad industry (that posts hundreds of millions of dollars in profits) to step up, once and for all, and take responsibility for the safety of its own operations. Too many people are dying needlessly in collisions that could be prevented if the railroads would put safety first.

This overview is provided by RailWatch – a non-profit public education organization dedicated to educating the public about railroad safety.

Source: Railwatch -

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This file last updated: Monday, 28-Feb-2000 17:53:20 EST
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