Railroads May Be Sued for Damages in PA Under State Law

On May 14, 2015, the Honorable Judge R. Stanton Wettick, Jr. issued a Memorandum and Order of Court denying a railroad’s request to be dismissed from a property damage case in the matter of Environmental Air, Inc. v. Wheeling and Lake Erie Railway Company, which can be found at GD-11-013611 in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. The Environmental Air case surrounds allegations by Environmental Air that it experienced significant property damage as a result of the railroad’s modification of its tracks which sit above the Environmental Air facility in the West End neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Wheeling and Lake Erie Railway modified certain areas around its tracks which sit approximately one-half mile above the Environmental Air facility.

After two extremely heavy rainstorms, Environmental Air’s facility suffered significant damage to its structure and inventory when water flowed down a Pittsburgh street. Environmental Air alleges that the railroad was responsible for the property damage because it modified the area around its tracks in such a manner as to cause additional water flow. The case is still pending and is thought to be scheduled for trial in the Fall of 2015. 

After a number of depositions were taken, the railroad then filed a Motion for Summary Judgment to dismiss the claim based upon Federal law. A Motion for Summary Judgment is granted when there is no dispute regarding the facts and the party that filed the motion is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

The railroad contended that it was entitled to have the case dismissed based upon a Federal law known as the Federal Rail Safety Act and related track drainage litigations. This issue has been recently decided by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the matter of Miller v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority where the Court ruled that the Federal Rail Safety Act did not preclude individuals or companies from suing railroads based upon Federal law. The railroad in the Environmental Air case argued that Federal law precluded the claim due to a concept in the law known as federal preemption. Essentially federal preemption exists and precludes a state law claim where the matter is essentially fully governed by Federal law.

The railroad in the Environmental Air case also asserted that Environmental Air’s negligence case was preempted by another law known as the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act. This Act addresses issues regarding transportation by rail carriers and the remedies provided under the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act. The railroad argued that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act law also precluded Environmental Air’s negligence claim. Judge Wettick ruled that that law also did not preclude Environmental Air’s claim. Judge Wettick rejected all of these claims and has allowed the case to proceed to trial.

If you, your company or partnership have suffered personal injury or property damage as a result of the conduct of the railroad, contact the law firm of Carmody and Ging at 412-281-2929.