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Indiana Supreme Court Rules, in a Matter of First Impression, “Blocked-Crossing” Statute Preempted under Federal Law
Posted in Litigation

BGD’s K. Mulvaney and M. Christensen draft amicus brief in support of decision.

Indiana’s state motto is “the Crossroads of America” and, when it comes to railroad grade crossings, the Hoosier State lives up to its name. With 5,693 grade crossings, Indiana has the highest concentration of grade crossings in the country — one grade crossing for every 17 public-roadway miles in Indiana. See Indiana Dep’t of Transportation, Indiana State Rail Plan, 25, 32, 69-70 (Oct. 2017).

Indiana’s “blocked-crossing” statute — Ind. Code 8-6-7.5-1 — subjected railroads to Class C Infractions for blocking a grade crossing for more than 10 minutes. In 2015, as state agencies applied more pressure to railroads in enforcing the blocked-crossing statute, the Indiana Legislature passed a bill that increased the minimum fine for each citation to $200 and proposed a study committee to examine grade crossings. Some railroads even reported conductors and engineers receiving fines in their individual capacities as enforcement of blocked-crossings reached unprecedented levels in 2015. See, e.g., “Blocked street crossings could cost railroads big bucks,” The Times of Northwest Indiana.

 From Allen County to the Indiana Supreme Court

Amid the mounting fines and zealous enforcement of the blocked-crossing statute, Norfolk Southern Railway Company (“Norfolk Southern”) challenged the State’s ability to issue citations under this statute. Between December 2014 and December 2015, Norfolk Southern received 23 citations for violations of Indiana’s blocked-crossing statute in Allen County, Indiana. Norfolk Southern moved for summary judgement on the citations, arguing that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (“ICCTA”) and the Federal Railroad Safety Act (“FRSA”) expressly preempt Indiana’s blocked-crossing statute. Specifically, Norfolk Southern contended that, per the ICCTA and the FRSA, the regulation of railroad transportation is a matter exclusively for the federal government (in this instance, the Surface Transportation Board). Indiana’s blocked-crossing statute invades the exclusive province of the federal government, according to Norfolk Southern, by influencing how fast Norfolk Southern may run trains, or how long Norfolk Southern may construct them, lest these trains run slowly or long and, in turn, block a crossing for more than 10 minutes. The Allen County Superior Court sided with Norfolk Southern and granted summary judgment for all 23 citations.

The State appealed this ruling, claiming that neither the ICCTA nor the FRSA expressly preempts Indiana’s blocked-crossing statute and that regulation of Indiana’s grade crossings falls under state jurisdiction. Notwithstanding authority from other state courts that held their respective states’ blocked-crossing statutes were preempted by the ICCTA and the FRSA, the Court of Appeals agreed with the State and reversed the trial court’s decision, relying predominately on a presumption against federal preemption. Norfolk Southern then petitioned to transfer and the Indiana Supreme Court granted, vacating the Court of Appeals opinion.

The Question of Jurisdiction

In a 16-page opinion authored by Chief Justice Loretta Rush (with no dissenting opinions), the Indiana Supreme Court held that Indiana’s blocked-crossing statute is preempted by ICCTA for two reasons. “First, because [ICCTA’s] effects substantially interfere with railroad operations. And second, because ICCTA preemption is not limited to explicitly economic regulations.”

In its discussion, the Indiana Supreme Court examined whether Indiana’s blocked-crossing statute equates to a regulatory measure for the industry. In other words, does prohibiting trains to block crossings for over 10 minutes amount to “managing” or “governing” rail transportation, or is it simply the policing of intersections? As the Indiana Supreme Court observed, “[r]outine crossing requirements that are often too tangential to ‘regulate’ rail transportation include keeping crossings in service, closing private crossings, and paying for pedestrian crossings and sidewalks.” The aforementioned matters are not preempted under the ICCTA.

The Court’s Decision

Ultimately, the Indiana Supreme Court found that Indiana’s blocked-crossing statute does manage and govern railroads, as it dictates key operational choices such as train speed, length, scheduling, repairs, and safety checks. The Court cited CSX Transp., Inc. v. City of Plymouth, 283 F.3d 812, 817 (6th Cir. 2002) for the proposition “the amount of time a moving train spends at a grade crossing is mathematically a function of the length of the train and the speed at which the train is traveling.” As such, the justices ruled that the ICCTA’s preemption provision “unambiguously preempts Indiana’s blocked-crossing statute.” Given this determination with respect to the ICCTA, the Court did not address the arguments of preemption under the FRSA.

The Decision’s Impact

The ruling of State of Indiana v. Norfolk Southern Railway Company bolsters the original, deregulating intent of the ICCTA and is a clear victory for the railroad industry in Indiana. Although motorists may express frustration with the State’s inability to issue citations to railroads under Indiana’s blocked-crossing statute, regulation nevertheless may persist through the Surface Transportation Board.

  • Partner

    Meg concentrates her practice in business litigation, attorney ethics, appeals, construction law and media law. Meg has assisted clients and taken leadership roles in litigation in both federal and state courts in claims ...

  • Associate

    Mark Molter is a member of the firm's Business Litigation Department, where he represents individuals, small businesses, and large corporations in commercial disputes involving breach of contract claims, fiduciary ...

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