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September 18, 2015

MSC to hear oral argument on a railroad’s duties to maintain a safe grade crossing

In Estate of Corl v. Huron & E. Ry. Co., No. 150970, the Michigan Supreme Court scheduled oral argument to consider whether to grant defendant’s application for leave to appeal.  The Court specifically directed the parties to address in their supplemental briefing whether the Court of Appeals decision holding that railroads have no duty to deploy a flagman at railroad crossings absent an order by a public authority, but that railroads do have a duty to remove overgrown vegetation at crossings, conflicts with that court’s previous decision in Paddock v. Tuscola & Saginaw Bay Railway Company, 225 Mich. App. 526 (1997), and MCL 462.317, and whether Paddock was correctly decided.
 
Bradley Corl was killed when his truck was struck by a train at a grade crossing.  Kimberly Corl, as Personal Representative of the decedent’s estate, brought an action against the defendant railroads for breach of their common law duty to maintain a safe grade crossing, because of their failure to deploy a flagman at the crossing, and because they had failed to create a clear vision area by removing obstructive vegetation.  The defendants moved for summary disposition.  The trial court denied summary disposition and the defendants appealed. 
 
The Court of Appeals held that there was no duty to deploy a flagman at the crossing for two reasons.  First, MCL 257.668(2) precludes negligence claims based on a railroad’s failure to deploy a flagman unless ordered to deploy one by public authority.  Second, following its decision in Paddock, the claim was preempted by federal law.  In Paddock, the court held that such a claim was preempted by federal law because the United States Supreme Court has held that state-law tort claims based on train speed are preempted by federal law.  Specifically, the Paddock Court stated that “if a train cannot be compelled to slow down as it approaches a crossing, it also cannot be compelled to stop altogether in order to deploy a flagman.”  Thus, the court found that following Paddock, plaintiff’s state-law claim that the railroad should have deployed a flagman was preempted by federal law, and that the trial court erred in denying summary disposition on this ground.
 
However, the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court in holding that a railroad does have a common-law duty to maintain the vegetation on its right-of-way so as to provide a clear vision area for motorists.  The defendants argued that the Paddock decision stood for the proposition that a railroad has no duty to remove visual obstructions absent an order from the appropriate road authority.  The Court of Appeals disagreed with this interpretation, finding that a careful reading of Paddock shows that while it has held that railroads do not have a duty to petition the governmental authority for the creation of a clear vision area at a railroad crossing, it did not hold that a railroad has no duty to remove vegetation from a railroad crossing.  Moreover, the court held that the plain language of MCL 462.317 does not expressly or implicitly carve out an exception from the railroad’s common law duty to provide a safe grade crossing.
 
The Michigan Supreme Court has granted mini oral argument to consider whether Paddock was correctly decided, and whether the Court of Appeals’ decision in Estate of Corl conflicts with that decision.

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