Supreme Court Rules on Railroad Liability for Parade Accident

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During Memorial Day weekend of 2009, the Village of Elm Grove, Wisconsin held a parade. Prior to the event, Elm Grove police notified railroad conductors to watch out for vehicles and pedestrians that could be on the village’s train tracks during the parade. When Scott and Monica Partenfelder took their children to the parade, their minivan got caught in traffic while the vehicle was on the train tracks. When the railroad crossings came down and the warning bells began ringing to indicate that a train was coming, the Partenfelders tried to move their minivan, but the vehicle was stuck on the tracks. As Scott Partenfelder and a police officer attempted to remove one of the children from the minivan, the train struck the vehicle. Both Scott and the officer sustained injuries as a result of the collision. The young child was unharmed.

The Partenfelders brought a lawsuit against Soo Line Railroad Company, claiming that the railroad was negligent because it did not take proper precautions with respect to the parade. The railroad argued that the Federal Railroad Safety Act preempted the Partenfelders’ state law claim. The trial court in Milwaukee County agreed with the railroad. The Court of Appeals of Wisconsin reversed the trial court, holding that the parade presented a “specific, individual hazard,” and, as a result, claims arising from the parade were not preempted by federal law. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin reversed the Court of Appeals, concluding that the parade was not a “specific, individual hazard” because it was a general danger rather than a specific one. The Supreme Court did decide, however, that the Partenfelders could have a claim against the railroad for actions it took after it saw the minivan on the train tracks, which the Court called a “specific, individual hazard.”

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