MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Memorial Day parade that led to a traffic jam blocking railroad tracks in a Milwaukee suburb did not amount to a specific hazard that could make the railroad company liable for striking a minivan, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The decision is a victory for the railroad industry, which worried that an opposite ruling could lead to railroads being liable for negligence for not slowing down under a variety of scenarios. Federal law requires trains to slow down or stop in reaction to specific hazards.
"Letters could come to the railroad asking for slow orders for events from birthday and graduation parties to family reunions, to races and marathons, all of which might happen only once a year," Justice David Prosser wrote for the majority. "Railroads would face the constant dilemma of either slowing their trains of risking prolonged litigation and potential liability."
In this case, the parade, which took place in Elm Grove in 2009, created only a "generally dangerous traffic condition," the court said in a 5-2 opinion.
While the parade itself was not a specific hazard, the minivan stuck on the tracks was, the Supreme Court said.
Elm Grove Officer John Krahn and Scott Partenfelder, of West Allis, were severely injured as they rescued Partenfelder's wife and 2-year-old child from the van. Both men were thrown from the tracks, while the child remained unharmed in his car seat. The men said they incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills.
Partenfelder and Krahn sued Soo Line Railroad Company, a subsidiary of Canadian Pacific Railway, for negligence. They argued that the railroad should have issued an order for trains to go more slowly through the area because of the parade.
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