Strozyk v. Norfolk Southern Corp.

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
Citation358 F.3d 268
Docket NumberNo. 02-3957.,02-3957.
PartiesClair STROZYK, Individually, as Parent of, and as Co-Administrator of the Estate of Christopher Strozyk; Denise Strozyk, Individually, as Parent of, and as Co-Administratrix of the Estate of Christopher Strozyk, Appellants v. NORFOLK SOUTHERN CORP.; Joseph Sullivan.
Decision Date20 January 2004

Frederick E. Charles (Argued), Allentown, PA, Stephen L. Shields, Bethlehem, PA, for Appellants.

Paul F.X. Gallagher (Argued), Gallagher, Rowan & Egbert, Philadelphia, PA, for Appellees.

Before RENDELL, WEIS and GARTH, Circuit Judges.


RENDELL, Circuit Judge.

Christopher Strozyk was killed at a railroad crossing when a train owned and operated by Norfolk Southern collided with the truck he was driving. Subsequently, Strozyk's parents filed suit against Norfolk, alleging, inter alia, the railroad's negligence for inadequate warning devices at the grade crossing, excessive speed of the train, and failure to provide proper sight lines for motorists crossing the track. Norfolk moved the District Court for summary judgment, arguing that much of the Strozyks' complaint was pre-empted by virtue of the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 ("FRSA"), 84 Stat. 971, as amended, 49 U.S.C. § 20101 et seq. The District Court held that federal regulations setting forth guidelines for the installation of adequate warning devices, 23 C.F.R.§§ 646-214(b)(3) and (b)(4), compelled the dismissal of most of the Strozyks' claims. On appeal, the Strozyks contend that while several allegations such as the inadequacy of warning devices may have been properly dismissed, the District Court improperly struck other claims arguably unrelated to the scope of § 646.214, namely, claims concerning limited sight lines and failure to maintain a safe grade crossing. Because we agree with the Strozyks that § 646.214 does not cover claims of limited visibility and negligent maintenance of a grade crossing, we will reverse.


The fatal collision took place on May 8, 2000 at a railroad crossing that intersects Smith Lane in Alburtis, Pennsylvania. The District Court found that warning devices, specifically crossbucks—the X-shaped signs placed on posts that read "RAILROAD CROSSING"—were installed at the Smith Lane crossing around June of 1987. These warning signs were installed under the auspices of a federal-state crossbuck replacement program and paid for in part with federal funds, and were in place at the time of Strozyk's accident, thirteen years later. These facts are unchallenged on this appeal.

Following the accident, in March of 2001, the Strozyks filed a wrongful death and survival action in Pennsylvania state court, asserting various claims of negligence against Norfolk.1 After removing the case to the District Court based on diversity jurisdiction, Norfolk then moved for summary judgment. It argued that the FRSA preempted state tort claims where federal funding was involved in the improvement of the grade crossing. Norfolk contended that the crossbucks at the Smith Lane crossing were installed in part with federal money and that, consequently, the Strozyks' claims were preempted. In an order issued on June 5, 2002, the District Court agreed, and granted Norfolk's motion for partial summary judgment, eliminating all but two of the Strozyks' claims as preempted. The Strozyks do not appeal the District Court's finding that the warning devices at the Smith Lane crossing were installed with federal funds nor do they appeal what follows from that finding, i.e., that they may not challenge the warning devices' adequacy.

However, going beyond the claims relating to warning devices, the District Court reasoned that § 646.214(b) compelled the dismissal of several other claims unrelated to warning devices, only two of which are the subject of this appeal. First, the Strozyks claim that Norfolk violated its duty of care under Pennsylvania law to maintain a safe grade crossing. Second, and relatedly, the Strozyks claim that obstructed sight lines at the grade crossing restricted the ability to see oncoming trains. Indeed, the Strozyks' principal allegation appears to be that excess vegetation, which Norfolk had a duty to control, obscured decedent's view of the oncoming train.

After the District Court's June 5 order, only two claims remained: a) failing to give proper sound, signal, or warning of the presence of the train prior to collision and b) violating the decedent's right of way. Norfolk then filed a motion for summary judgment with respect to these claims, arguing that its engineer had sounded a horn on its approach to the Smith Lane Crossing. In responding to this motion, the Strozyks conceded that a horn was blown and stated that Norfolk's motion was "unopposed." Consequently, the District Court, in an order issued on September 27, 2001, granted Norfolk's second motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case.2 "Because the grant of summary judgment and the dismissal of the complaint are inconsistent," we will disregard the District Court's reference to dismissal of the Strozyks' complaint and treat the record instead as a summary judgment record. Cheminor Drugs, Ltd. v. Ethyl Corp., 168 F.3d 119, 121 n. 2 (3d Cir.1999).


The District Court had subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Our jurisdiction for review of the District Court's final order is based on 28 U.S.C. § 1291. We review summary judgment motions de novo, using the same test applicable to a district court. Mass. Sch. of Law v. ABA, 107 F.3d 1026, 1032 (3d Cir.1997).


We are asked to determine whether 23 C.F.R. § 646.214(b) preempts the subject matter of state negligence law regarding the maintenance of a safe grade crossing, including duties with respect to restricted sight lines. Subsections §§ 646.214(b)(3) and (4) set forth guidelines for selecting the appropriate warning devices for installation at grade crossings improved with federal funding.3 These guidelines preempt state law by virtue of the FRSA's express preemption provision. Pursuant to this provision, state laws, regulations, and common law duties concerning railroad safety remain in force until the Secretary of Transportation promulgates regulations or orders that "cover[] the subject matter of the State requirement." 49 U.S.C. § 20106. The Supreme Court has observed that the FRSA's preemption clause "displays considerable solicitude for state law" and that preemption will lie only if the federal regulations, in our case, §§ 646.214(b)(3) and (4), "substantially subsume the subject matter of the relevant state law." CSX Transp., Inc. v. Easterwood, 507 U.S. 658, 664-65, 113 S.Ct. 1732, 123 L.Ed.2d 387 (1993). Particularly, the Court in Norfolk S. Ry. Co. v. Shanklin, 529 U.S. 344, 120 S.Ct. 1467, 146 L.Ed.2d 374 (2000), has held that by virtue of the FRSA, these regulations preempt state tort claims challenging the adequacy of warning devices that are installed in part with federal funds.

After first concluding that federal funds were expended for the installation of the crossbucks at the Smith Lane crossing, the District Court considered which of the Strozyks' claims were preempted by the FRSA. The District Court dismissed the Strozyks' claims that the crossbucks at the grade crossings were inadequate—a determination which the Strozyks do not challenge. But the District Court went on to dismiss other claims which the Strozyks argue were not within the subject matter of § 646.214(b). Reading Shanklin broadly, the District Court held that § 646.214(b)'s subject matter covered not only warning device claims, but other negligence claims arising out of a grade crossing accident. The Court set forth two rationales for its dismissal of the Strozyks' claims concerning limited sight lines and failure to maintain a safe grade crossing. On appeal, Norfolk posits a third ground for affirmance.

First, with respect to the Strozyks' limited visibility claim, the District Court observed that § 646.214(b) lists "unusually restricted sight distance" as a factor mandating the installation of active warning devices. The District Court reasoned that the standard set by the regulation encompasses not just the ultimate selection of a warning device but "all the considerations set forth in section 646.214(b)(3)(A) through (F), including the appropriate response to limited sight distance or unusually restricted sight distance." The Court concluded that because the federal regulation's subject matter includes visibility, the Strozyks' limited sight lines claim was preempted.

Second, with respect to the Strozyks' claim that Norfolk did not maintain a safe grade crossing, the District Court held that it would "defy logic to allow preemption in the case of a specific allegation that a railroad failed to maintain adequate warning devices, rendering a grade crossing unsafe, but not the general allegation that a railroad failed to maintain a safe grade crossing." After concluding that the specific claims concerning warning devices and the general claims of a safe grade crossing were "one in the same [sic]", the District Court dismissed the Strozyks' general maintenance claims as preempted. Id.

Norfolk urges that, in addition to adopting the District Court's reasoning regarding the scope of the regulation, we should affirm on different grounds, namely, that Norfolk met its duty of care to the decedent. Indeed, on appeal Norfolk appears to sidestep the substance of the District Court's preemption determination, and instead, challenges the merits of the Strozyks' claims under Pennsylvania negligence law. Norfolk contends that Pennsylvania common law establishes an either/or standard for due care at a grade crossing: sounding a horn obviates a railroad's duty to provide proper sight lines and vice versa. Pointing to the Strozyks' concession to the District Court that the train engineer did sound a horn...

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