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Court to decide if flooding suits against RR will be permitted

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard arguments earlier this month on whether or not the Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA) prohibits negligence suits against railroads for property damage caused by water diverted off their land due to poor track maintenance.  Currently, common law negligence suits brought by adjoining property owners against railroad companies are typically preempted/prohibited by federal law.  The Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution provides that federal law trumps state law when the two are in conflict.  Here the FRSA trumps state law thus prohibiting citizens from bringing negligence claims the arise from an area covered by the federal law. 

The case currently before the Court is interesting because it will determine if a property owner will be permitted to bring a suit against a railroad company when his property is flooded due to inadequate maintenance of railroad tracks.  The Court will determine if the FRSA contemplated such a problem since the express terms of the statute are silent on the matter.  The case, Miller v. SEPTA, involves a hotel that was flooded on multiple occasions allegedly by waters diverted due to the railroad's poor maintenance of a stone bridge.  The hotel owner brought suit to recover for his damages.  The trial court found against him, finding that the FRSA prohibited his negligence suit.  His case was appealed and he is now awaiting a decision from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  His lawyers argue that his case is permitted under the FRSA because the law is silent as to how railroads are to ensure that water is not diverted off of their tracks onto neighboring property.  The Court will consider if this silence means that the federal government meant to prohibit claims such as Miller's. 

This will be an interesting case to watch that will have far reaching implications for anyone who has land bordering railroad tracks.  If his suit is permitted then citizens might have recourse against the railroads to recover for property damage caused by flood waters due to inadequate track maintenance.



Source:  "Justices Mull Whether Railroad Flooding Suits are Preempted," by Zack Needles, The Legal Intelligencer, March 17, 2014

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