507 U.S. 658 (1993), CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Easterwood

Citation:507 U.S. 658, 113 S.Ct. 1732, 123 L.Ed.2d 387, 61 U.S.L.W. 4346
Party Name:CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Easterwood
Case Date:April 21, 1993
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 658

507 U.S. 658 (1993)

113 S.Ct. 1732, 123 L.Ed.2d 387, 61 U.S.L.W. 4346

CSX Transportation, Inc.

v.

Easterwood

United States Supreme Court

April 21, 1993

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

After her husband was killed when a train owned and operated by CSX Transportation collided with his truck at a Georgia crossing, Lizzie Easterwood brought this diversity wrongful death action, alleging, inter alia, that CSX was negligent under Georgia law for failing to maintain adequate warning devices at the crossing and for operating the train at an excessive speed. The District Court granted summary judgment for CSX on the ground that both claims were preempted under the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 170 (FRSA). The Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding that the allegation based on the train's speed was preempted, but that the claim based on the absence of proper warning devices was not.

Held: Under the FRSA, federal regulations adopted by the Secretary of Transportation preempt Easterwood's negligence action only insofar as it asserts that CSX's train was traveling at an excessive speed. Pp. 661-676.

(a) The FRSA permits the States

to adopt or continue in force any law, rule, regulation, order, or standard relating to railroad safety until such time as the Secretary has adopted a . . . regulation . . . covering the subject matter of such State requirement,

and, even thereafter, to adopt safety standards more stringent than the federal requirements "when necessary to eliminate or reduce an essentially local safety hazard," if those standards are compatible with federal law and do not unduly burden interstate commerce. 45 U.S.C. § 434. Legal duties imposed on railroads by a State's common law of negligence fall within the scope of § 434's broad phrases describing matters "relating to railroad safety." The section's term "covering" indicates that preemption will lie only if the federal regulations substantially subsume the subject matter of the relevant state law. Pp. 661-665.

(b) The Secretary's grade crossing safety regulations do not "cove[r] the subject matter" of Easterwood's warning devices claim. In light of the relatively stringent standard set by § 434's language and the presumption

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against preemption, the regulations of 23 CFR pt. 924 cannot be said to support preemption. They merely establish the general terms under which States may use federal aid to eliminate highway hazards, including those at grade crossings, and provide no explicit indication of their effect on negligence law, which often has assigned joint responsibility for maintaining safe crossings to railroads and States. Likewise, preemption is not established by 23 CFR § 646.214(b)(1)'s requirement that the States comply with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways, and by that Manual's declaration that the States determine the need for, and type of, safety devices to be installed at a grade crossing. It is implausible that established state negligence law would be implicitly displaced by an elliptical reference in a Government Manual otherwise devoted to describing for the benefit of state employees the proper size, color, and shape of traffic signs and signals. Moreover, the Manual itself disavows any claim to cover the subject matter of the tort law of grade crossings. Finally, although 23 CFR §§ 646.214(b)(3) and (4) do displace state decisionmaking authority by requiring particular warning devices at grade crossings for certain federally-funded projects, those regulations are inapplicable here, because a plan to install such devices at the crossing at issue was shelved and the federal funds allocated for the project diverted elsewhere. Pp. 665-673.

(c) Easterwood's excessive speed claim cannot stand in light of the Secretary's adoption of the regulations in 49 CFR § 213.9(a). Although, on their face, § 213.9(a)'s provisions address only the maximum speeds at which trains are permitted to travel given the nature of the track on which they operate, the overall structure of the Secretary's regulations demonstrates that these speed limits were adopted with safety concerns in mind, and should be understood as "covering the subject matter" in question. It is irrelevant that the Secretary's primary purpose in enacting the speed limits may have been to prevent derailments, since § 434 does not call for an inquiry into purpose. Moreover, because the common law speed restrictions relied on by Easterwood are concerned with local hazards only in the sense that their application depends on each case's facts, those restrictions are not preserved by § 434's second saving clause. Pp. 673-675.

933 F.2d 1548, affirmed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court with respect to Parts I and II, and the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts III and IV, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and BLACKMUN, STEVENS, O'CONNOR,

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SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in [113 S.Ct. 1736] part, in which SOUTER, J., joined, post, p. 676.

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WHITE, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Thomas Easterwood was killed on February 24, 1988 when a train owned and operated by petitioner and cross-respondent CSX Transportation collided with the truck he was driving at the Cook Street crossing in Cartersville, Georgia. His widow, respondent and cross-petitioner Lizzie Easterwood, brought this diversity wrongful death action, which alleges, inter alia, that CSX was negligent under Georgia law for failing to maintain adequate warning devices at the crossing and for operating the train at an excessive speed. The issue before the Court is the extent to which the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 (FRSA), 84 Stat. 971, as amended, 45 U.S.C. §§ 421-447 (1988 ed. and Supp. II), preempts these claims.

The District Court for the Northern District of Georgia granted summary judgment for CSX on the ground that both claims were preempted. 742 F.Supp. 676, 678 (1990). The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding that respondent's allegation of negligence based on the train's speed was preempted, but that the claim based on the absence of proper warning devices was not. 933 F.2d 1548, 15531556 (1991). Because Courts of Appeals have differed over the preemptive effect of FRSA on negligence suits against railroads, we granted the petitions of both parties. 505 U.S. 1217 (1992).[1] We now affirm.

I

FRSA was enacted in 1970

to promote safety in all areas of railroad operations and to reduce railroad-related accidents, and to reduce deaths and injuries to persons. . . .

45 U.S.C. § 421. To aid in the achievement of these goals,

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the Act specifically directs the Secretary of Transportation to study and develop solutions to safety problems posed by grade crossings. § 433. In addition, the Secretary is given broad powers to "prescribe, as necessary, appropriate rules, regulations, orders, and standards for all areas of railroad safety. . . ." § 431(a). The preemptive effect of these regulations is governed by § 434, which contains express saving and preemption clauses.[2] Thus, the States are permitted to

adopt or continue in force any law, rule, regulation, order, or standard relating to railroad safety until such time as the Secretary has adopted a rule, regulation, order, or standard covering the subject matter of such State requirement.

[113 S.Ct. 1737] Even after federal standards have been promulgated, the States may adopt more stringent safety requirements "when necessary to eliminate or reduce an essentially local safety hazard," if those standards are "not incompatible with" federal laws or regulations and not an undue burden on interstate commerce.

In 1971, the Secretary, acting through the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), promulgated regulations under FRSA setting maximum train speeds for different classes of track. See 49 CFR § 213.9 (1992). Also in 1971, and again in 1972, the Secretary duly reported to Congress on the

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problem of grade crossings and on possible solutions.[3] Congress responded by enacting the Highway Safety Act of 1973, Title II of the Act of Aug. 13, 1973, 87 Stat. 282, as amended, note following 23 U.S.C. § 130. This Act makes federal funds available to the States to improve grade crossings, in return for which the States must

conduct and systematically maintain a survey of all highways to identify those railroad crossings which may require separation, relocation, or protective devices, and establish and implement a schedule of projects for this purpose.

23 U.S.C. § 130(d). Further conditions on the States' use of federal aid to improve grade crossings have been set out in regulations promulgated by the Secretary through the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) under FRSA and the Highway Safety Act. See 23 CFR pts. 646, 655, 924, 1204 (1992). It is petitioner's contention that the Secretary's speed and grade crossing regulations "cove[r] the subject matter" of, and therefore preempt, the state law on which respondent relies.[4]

Where a state statute conflicts with or frustrates federal law, the former must give way. U.S.Const., Art. VI, cl. 2; Maryland v. Louisiana, 451 U.S. 725, 746 (1981). In the

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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 preemption. Thus, preemption will not lie unless it is "the clear and manifest purpose of Congress." Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp., 331 U.S. 218, 230 (1947). Evidence of preemptive purpose is sought in the text and structure of the statute at issue. Shaw v. Delta Air Lines Inc., ...

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