The annual Memorial Day parade draws crowds and cars to the small Waukesha County community of Elm Grove. A family large enough to occupy two cars was traveling through the village during the 2009 celebration and became stuck in traffic.
The vehicles were perched on the railroad tracks when the warning bells sounded and the railroad gates descended. A fatal car accident was likely if the vehicles or the occupants were not moved quickly. No one died, but a motor vehicle accident occurred that seriously injured a family member and a police officer.
The victims could not move the van because the vehicle's tires were wedged between tracks. An officer was helping a father remove a toddler from the vehicle. The 2-year-old boy escaped harm in the ensuing crash.
The train hit the family's van at a reduced speed of 45 mph. The conductor apparently spotted the vehicles and braked about 350 feet before impact. Personal injury lawsuits were filed against the Soo Line Railroad Company, which were disputed by the defendant, but recently cleared to move forward by a Wisconsin appeals court.
Two of three appellate judges reversed an earlier ruling that dismissed the liability claims. The railroad and a lower court felt Soo Line was excused from responsibility under the Federal Railroad Safety Act.
The panel felt the community had provided the railroad with adequate notice of the scheduled parade. The judges felt the train conductor had a duty to slow down to avoid a known "specific hazard."
Claims that Soo Line was negligent and in violation of the state's safe-place law can continue through the legal system. A dissenting judge felt the parade did not become a hazard or a legal exception until the van blocked the tracks.
Laws provide legal immunity for certain entities like railroad companies and government agencies. Personal injury attorneys investigate the exceptions to liability exemptions to build victims' cases.
Source: wisbar.org, "Lawsuit Involving Memorial Day Train Accident Will Continue," Joe Forward, March 19, 2013