Supreme Court Rules that Federal Law Preempts State Negligence Claims Against Railroad Company

In a 5-2 decision authored by Justice Prosser, joined by Justices Crooks, Roggensack, Ziegler, and Gableman, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that a parade and resultant parade traffic leading to a train collision with a vehicle did not qualify as an exception to preemption under the Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA). Chief Justice Abrahamson authored a dissenting opinion and was joined by Justice Bradley. The case is Partenfelder v. Rhode, 2014 WI 80.


This case involved a train colliding with a minivan that became stuck on a set of railroad tracks during a Memorial Day parade in Elm Grove, WI. Prior to the parade, the Elm Grove Police Department sent a letter to Steve Rhode, a member of Canadian Pacific Rail Police, notifying the company of the Memorial Day parade. The letter stated that the parade-related activities may increase pedestrian traffic. The letter asked Rhode to notify the conductors of potential hazards on the tracks. Rhode sent an email to the railroad dispatcher that Elm Grove was having the parade and asked that the train crews be notified.

On the day of the parade, Scott and Monica Ensley-Partenfelder took their three children to the parade and drove in separate vehicles. Monica followed Scott in their minivan. Monica had the couple’s 23-month-old son in her vehicle. When the couple’s vehicles approached the track Monica’s minivan became stuck as a train began to approach.

The train crew saw Monica’s minivan stuck on the tracks and began to apply the brakes. Meanwhile, police officer John Krahn helped Monica out of the vehicle. Monica informed Officer Krahn that her toddler was strapped in his car seat. Officer Krahn and Scott attempted to extract the toddler from the car seat, but were unable to do so before the train collided head on with the minivan. Amazingly, their son was unharmed, but Officer Krahn and Scott were both injured in the collision.

The plaintiffs, the Partenfelders and Officer Krahn, sued the Soo Line (which is a subsidiary of Canadian Pacific) and their employee, Rhode, alleging that their negligence caused the collision. In addition to their common law negligence claim, their complaint brought a safe place claim (Wis. Stat. § 101.11(1)) against Soo Line.

Soo Line asserted various affirmative defenses, one of which was that the Federal Railroad Safety Act preempted the plaintiffs’ claims.

Circuit Court Decision

The Circuit Court held that the parade itself did not qualify as an exception to preemption under the FRSA, but held that the van stuck on the tracks was a specific, individual hazard. Therefore, the court held that the claims based upon the railroad crew’s actions after spotting the minivan were exempt from preemption and denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The decision was appealed.

Court of Appeals Decision

The Court of Appeals reversed the Circuit Court’s holding that the parade itself did not qualify as an exception to preemption under the FRSA. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Circuit Court’s determination that the claims based upon the railroad crew’s actions after spotting the train were exempt from preemption.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Decision

The issue before the Wisconsin Supreme Court was whether the Memorial Day parade falls under the “specific, individual hazard” exception to preemption under the FRSA.

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and held that the Memorial Day parade “was not a ‘specific, individual hazard’ because the parade created only a generally dangerous traffic condition.” According to the majority, while “the parade traffic in general may have increased the likelihood of an accident, it did not create a specific hazard, nor did the mere increase in traffic present an imminent danger of a collision.”

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court explained the FRSA was created “to promote safety in every area of railroad operations and reduce railroad-related accidents and incidents.” (49 U.S.C. § 20101). To provide uniformity throughout the country, the FRSA expressly preempts state law in areas covered by the FRSA.

The Supreme Court of the United States in CSX Transp., Inc. v. Easterwood, 507 U.S. 658 (1993) addressed the statute stating that the FRSA preemption applies to state common law claims as well as statutory claims. Although the FRSA expressly preempts state law in covered areas, the U.S. Supreme Court in Easterwood stated that there is an exception to preemption for state claims alleging that a railroad was negligent for failing to slow or stop a train in response to a “specific, individual hazard.”

As explained above, the Wisconsin Supreme Court determined that the parade itself was not a “specific, individual hazard,” and therefore the state negligence claims brought by the plaintiffs were preempted by the FRSA.

However, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that the minivan stuck on the track constituted a “specific, individual hazard.” Therefore, the question whether the train crew was negligent in responding to the vehicle stuck on the track remained. The Court remanded the case back to the Circuit Court to determine whether the train crew was negligent when they spotted the vehicle on the track or whether the plaintiffs’ actions were the sole cause for their injuries.

Dissenting Opinion

Chief Justice Abrahamson, joined by Justice Bradley, dissented arguing that the FRSA “does not fully replace or supersede Wisconsin’s tort law, which protects the residents of the state from injury.” The dissenting opinion further argues that the “public safety of the resident of Wisconsin and our established tort law designed to promote public safety in Wisconsin do not necessarily conflict with federal standards under [FSRA]…”