Federal Railroad Safety Act Preemption - Case Law
CSX Transportation Inc. v. Easterwood (1993) 507 U.S. 658, is the seminal and controlling decision in the area of Federal Railroad Safety Act preemption.
The Supreme Court held that, in order for a federal regulation to "cover" the same subject matter as a state law, it must do more than merely "'touch upon' or 'relate to' that subject matter." (Id. at p. 664.)
Rather, "pre-emption will lie only if the federal regulations substantially subsume the subject matter of the relevant state law." (Ibid.)
In Easterwood, the plaintiff brought suit under Georgia law alleging the railroad was negligent because of the train's excessive speed and the railroad's failure to maintain proper warning signs at a crossing.
In terms of general preemption principles, Easterwood stated:
"Where a state statute conflicts with, or frustrates, federal law, the former must give way. In the interest of avoiding unintended encroachment on the authority of the States, however, a court interpreting a federal statute pertaining to a subject traditionally governed by state law will be reluctant to find pre-emption." (Easterwood, supra, 507 U.S. at pp. 663-664.)
Thus, there is a "presumption against pre-emption." (Id. at p. 668.)
Easterwood noted that, when considering a federal statute involving a subject traditionally governed by state law, "pre-emption will not lie unless it is 'the clear and manifest purpose of Congress.'" (Easterwood, supra, 507 U.S. at p. 664.)
Easterwood found the "plain wording" of the preemption clause "necessarily contains the best evidence of Congress' pre-emptive intent." (Ibid.)
Construing the provision currently found at title 49 United States Code section 20106(a)(2), Easterwood held that in order for a federal regulation to "cover" the same subject matter as a state law, it must do more than merely "'touch upon' or 'relate to' that subject matter." (Easterwood, supra, at p. 664.)
Rather, "pre-emption will lie only if the federal regulations substantially subsume the subject matter of the relevant state law." (Id. at p. 664.)
Addressing the failure to warn claim, Easterwood found the applicable federal regulations on warning devices "displaced" state tort law under which the plaintiffs sought to impose "an independent duty on a railroad to identify and/or repair dangerous crossings." (Easterwood, supra, 507 U.S. at pp. 670, 671.)
However, federally funded warning devices had not been installed at the crossing where the accident occurred. (Easterwood, supra, at pp. 671-673.) Thus, the failure to warn issue was not preempted.
Regarding the excessive speed claim, Easterwood held FRA regulations that established maximum train speeds preempted a state common law claim the train should have slowed at a grade crossing. Easterwood explained that, rather than calling for reduced speeds at grade crossings, the FRSA regulations chose to focus on "providing clear and accurate warnings of the approach of oncoming trains to drivers." (Easterwood, supra, 507 U.S. at p. 674.)
"On their face, the provisions of 49 Code of Federal Regulations 213.9(a) address only the maximum speeds at which trains are permitted to travel given the nature of the track on which they operate. Nevertheless, related safety regulations adopted by the Secretary reveal that the limits were adopted only after the hazards posed by track conditions were taken into account. Understood in the context of the overall structure of the regulations, the speed limits must be read as not only establishing a ceiling, but also as precluding additional state regulation of train speed." (Id. at p. 674.)
Thus, the federal speed regulation substantially subsumed and preempted the relevant state law as to claims based on train speed. (Id. at pp. 675-676.)
Easterwood noted it did not address, and the railroad was prepared to concede, that preemption of the plaintiff's excessive speed claim did not bar suit for breach of the duty to slow or stop a train to avoid a specific, individual hazard. However, the allegation in the plaintiff's complaint that the train "was traveling too quickly given the 'time and place' " was preempted. (Easterwood, supra, 507 U.S. at p. 676, fn. 15.)