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Sara Youngdahl On The Preclusion Of FELA Claims By The Federal Railroad Safety Act

In this Emerging Issues Analysis, Sara Youngdahl of Youngdahl and Citti P.C. examines case law on the issue of whether the Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA) precludes FELA claims based on excessive train speeds and inadequate warning devices. Ms. Youngdahl also discusses what plaintiffs should prepare to argue in court until the U.S. Supreme Court decides the issue. She writes:

"FRSA preemption began with two United States Supreme Court cases, CSX Transportation v. Easterwood and Norfolk Southern Railway v. Shanklin. In both cases, the plaintiffs sued the railroad claiming violations of state law negligence, in Easterwood for having operated its train at an excessive speed and for having failed to maintain adequate warning signals at a crossing, and in Shanklin for having failed to maintain adequate warning devices at a crossing. And in both cases, the railroad successfully persuaded the Court that once the railroad had complied with the standards set forth in the FRSA, then the injured motorist lost his or her right to bring a state law negligence claim."

"Only one court, in Earwood v. Norfolk Southern Railway, has concluded that FELA claims based on excessive train speed and inadequate warning devices are not precluded by the FRSA."

"The court explained that 'whether a previously available federal common law action has been displaced by federal statutory law involves an assessment of the scope of the legislation and whether the scheme established by Congress addresses the problem formerly governed by federal common law,' and this question requires an examination of the problems the law was intended to address."

"Until the United States Supreme Court decides whether the FRSA precludes certain FELA claims, lower courts will continue to offer their opinions on the matter. In the meantime, plaintiffs fighting FRSA preclusion of FELA claims should persuade courts to engage in a fact-specific analysis, as the Earwood court did, asking whether the FRSA regulations cover the same subject matter upon which the plaintiff's FELA claim is based, and when able, draw distinctions between the purpose of the regulation and the nature of the FELA claim."

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