Supreme Court of Ohio Rules that Ohio’s Blocked Crossing Statute is Preempted by Federal Law

Joseph J. Santoro By Joseph J. Santoro

In joining an overwhelming weight of authority from other jurisdictions that have found anti-blocking statutes in other states to be preempted by federal law, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled on August 17, 2022 in a 5-2 decision that an Ohio statute prohibiting a stopped train from blocking a railroad crossing for more than five minutes is preempted by federal law. In State of Ohio v. CSX Transp., Inc., Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-2832, Justice Sharon Kennedy  authored the lead opinion and ruled R.C. 5589.21, the Ohio statute in question, “regulates, manages, and governs” rail transportation and thus is expressly preempted by the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (“ICCTA”). The Court further concluded the Federal Railroad Safety Act (“FRSA”) does not exempt R.C. 5589.21 from the ICCTA’s preemptive force.

This case was brought before the Supreme Court of Ohio after CSX Transportation Inc. (“CSX”) was charged with violating R.C. 5589.21 five times in Union County, Ohio. CSX moved to dismiss the charges on the grounds that R.C. 5589.21 was preempted by the ICCTA and the FRSA. The Marysville Municipal Court granted CSX’s motion and the state appealed to the Third District Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the Marysville Municipal Court and CSX appealed. The Supreme Court of Ohio accepted the appeal to review the following propositions of law: (1) R.C. 5589.21 is preempted by the ICCTA; and (2) R.C. 5589.21 is preempted by the FRSA.

Though the Court ultimately ruled that R.C. 5589.21 is preempted by the ICCTA, the Court was nonetheless divided. Justice Kennedy, joined by Justice R. Patrick DeWine, authored the Court’s lead opinion. Justice Patrick F. Fischer wrote a concurring opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor. Justice Melody Stewart concurred in judgment only. And Justice Jennifer Brunner authored a dissenting opinion and was joined by Justice Michael P. Donnelly.

In its lead opinion, the Court concluded that R.C. 5589.21 is preempted by the ICCTA. The Ohio statute prohibits a non-moving train from blocking a street, road, or highway for more than five minutes. The statute also mandates that once a train has blocked a crossing and moved, the crossing then must remain open for at least three minutes to allow the passage of persons or vehicles waiting to cross before a train can again block the crossing. The Court reasoned that the state statute therefore regulates the movement of railroad equipment, leading Justice Kennedy to bluntly state that “it takes little effort to conclude that R.C. 5589.21 directly regulates rail transportation” – an activity Congress placed under the exclusive authority of the Surface Transportation Board.  Since the statute regulates railroad transportation, it usurps the exclusive jurisdiction of the Board and is therefore preempted by the ICCTA.

Justice Kennedy also found that R.C. 5589.21 is “an important matter of public safety, but not one of railroad safety” as it was enacted to ensure the movement of emergency vehicles across railroad tracks. As such, R.C. 5589.21 is preempted by the ICCTA and does not qualify for an exemption under the FRSA which addresses railroad safety.

This decision from the Ohio Supreme Court is significant to the railroad industry for at least two reasons.  One – each violation of R.C. 5589.21 was a misdemeanor of the first degree and subjected railroad companies to $1,000 fines for each violation.  The threat of fines under the state statute (or any local ordinances based on the state statute) is no longer an issue for the railroads.

Two – the Court ultimately found that “the regulation of railroad transportation is a matter of federal law, and the federal government alone has the power to address the threat to public safety caused by blocked crossings.”  This statement from the lead opinion demonstrates that some of the justices believe that the subject of blocked crossings is not one for Ohio’s General Assembly to legislate, but rather to be addressed at the federal level by the Surface Transportation Board.  It seems to be an indication from, at least, some justices that any future attempts by the General Assembly to legislate blocked crossings may likewise be preempted by federal law and unenforceable.

Joe Santoro and Rich Rezie of Gallagher Sharp LLP wrote an amicus brief on behalf of the Ohio Railroad Association urging preemption of the state statute by federal law.