TortsProf Blog

Editor: Christopher J. Robinette
Southwestern Law School

Friday, March 3, 2006

Preemption Junction, What's Your Function?

An interesting fight over preemption is developing in connection with a derailment and chemical spill in Minot, ND, and the effect of a federal court's decision in one case on a state case.

Canadian Pacific Railway is appealing a decision by a Minneapolis judge not to dismiss lawsuits filed over a derailment and chemical spill at Minot four years ago.

The railroad is citing a Feb. 14 ruling by U.S. District Judge James Rosenbaum, who threw out a claim against BNSF Railway in an October 2003 Perham, Minn., derailment that damaged a privately owned warehouse.

Rosenbaum said the railroad was immune from legal action under pre-emption, a legal premise by which some businesses under federal regulation are exempt from lawsuits.

Judge Tony Leung in Hennepin County District Court in Minneapolis [who is handling the Minot case] late last year cited a federal magistrate who said there is no intent in the federal laws to pre-empt personal injury claims stemming from a railroad's actions.

Canadian Pacific wants Leung's decision reversed, based on Rosenbaum's ruling.

* * *

Fargo attorney Mike Miller, who is representing hundreds of plaintiffs, said the railroad is "just leaving no rock unturned to try to avoid the responsibility of paying for the damages and injuries caused to the Minot people."

"The Federal Railroad Safety Act is a law that's designed to make the railroad safer, not to allow them to use it somehow as a shield against liability and a means of avoiding responsibility," Miller said.

Of course, the railroad would presumably contend that those goals are not necessarily in conflict.  The case also has some interesting negligence per se issues.

[Update: The BNSF opinion is available here: Download BNSF.pdf [PDF].]

[I don't think there's any real need for a disclosure, but I clerked for Judge Rosenbaum.]

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