§25.5 Duty of Railroad to Maintain Visibility at Crossings

The Case: Martin v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co. , 271 S.W.3d 76 (Tenn. 2008).

The Basic Facts: This is a wrongful death case in which deceased plaintiff was killed when her vehicle was hit by a train at a railroad crossing. The defendants argued on appeal that "they [were] entitled to summary judgment because Tennessee courts do not allow recovery for a claim asserting that an obstruction on a railroad's right-of-way prevented a motorist from seeing a train." 271 S.W.3d at 82.

The Bottom Line:

  • "As a preliminary matter, the defendants argue that they are entitled to summary judgment because Tennessee courts do not allow recovery for a claim asserting that an obstruction on a railroad's right-of-way prevented a motorist from seeing a train. In other words, the defendants contend that railroad companies do not have a duty to ensure that railroad crossings provide a reasonable degree of visibility to motorists. This argument is based on a case decided by our Court of Appeals in 1928. See Tenn. Cent. Ry. Co. v. Hayes, 9 Tenn.App. 116 (1928). In that case, the Court of Appeals stated, 'Obstructions to vision are not an independent ground of recovery-certainly not, in this case when the defendant did not place them-but they must be considered upon the question of the proper degree of care and vigilance which the railroad company is bound to exercise in the running and management of its train and in giving warnings of its approach.' Id. at 122." Id.

  • "This Court, however, has never approved of this holding. On the contrary, we have long recognized that railroads have a statutory and common-law duty to maintain adequate crossings for public highways. Tenn. Pub. Serv. Comm'n v. S. 83 Ry. Co., 554 S.W.2d 612, 613 [(Tenn. 1977)]; see also [Tenn. Code Ann. § 65-11-101(a) (2004)]. It is clear that Norfolk's operation of trains across public roadways necessarily involves a degree of risk to motorists, including Mrs. Martin. The creation of this risk necessarily entails the creation of a corresponding duty to take reasonable precautions to avoid injury to motorists. See Satterfield v. Breeding Insulation Co., 266 S.W.3d 347, 355 (Tenn. 2008). We therefore conclude that the duty to maintain an adequate crossing includes a duty to ensure that vegetation on the railroad's right-of-way does not unreasonably interfere with motorists' ability to perceive an oncoming train. FN2 To the extent Hayes is inconsistent with this holding, it is overruled. Accordingly, an injured party may recover for a claim based solely on a railroad's breach of its duty to ensure that vegetation on its right-of-way does not unreasonably obstruct motorists' view of approaching trains." Id. at 82-83.
    FN2 By recognizing this duty, it is not our intent to encroach upon federal authority to regulate the railroad industry. Federal regulations currently address the maintenance of vegetation "on or immediately adjacent to roadbed" and therefore preempt state efforts to regulate the maintenance of vegetation in that area. 49 C.F.R. § 213.37 (2007). Federal courts have recognized, however, that a railroad's right-of-way often extends several yards from the roadbed and that federal regulations do not preempt state regulation of vegetation that is on the railroad's right-of-way but not on or immediately adjacent to the roadbed. Mo. Pac. R.R. Co. v. R.R. Comm'n of Tex., 833 F.2d 570, 577 (5th Cir.1987); see also Shanklin v. Norfolk S. Ry. Co., 369 F.3d 978, 987-88 (6th Cir.2004). Accordingly, the duty we recognize today extends only to vegetation that is on the railroad's right-of-way but not on or immediately adjacent to the roadbed.

Other Sources of Note: Tenn. Code Ann. § 65-11-101(a) (2004).

After an accident, many injury victims and their families want more information on the accident and their legal rights. Consequently, many of them have found their way to these pages. While we are happy you are here, please understand Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law was written to be a quick, invaluable reference for Tennessee tort lawyers. While the book provides the leading case for more than 300 tort law subjects and thousands of related case citations, it is not a substitute for personalized legal advice from a qualified lawyer.

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The foregoing is an excerpt from Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law, published by John A. Day, Civil Trial Specialist, Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, recipient of Best Lawyers in America recognition, Martindale-Hubbell AV® Preeminent™ rated attorney, and Top 100 Tennessee Mid-South Super Lawyers designee. Read John’s full bio here.

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