Canal Fulton mother who lost son in accident thought Supreme Court would rule in favor of Tennessee family

The Beacon Journal

April 18, 2000

By: George Davis - Staff Writer

The Supreme Court yesterday gave railroads greater protection against being sued over allegedly inadequate warning devices at rail crossings, the scenes of hundreds of fatal accidents each year.

The 7-2 decision came as a shocking disappointment to Vicky Moore. The Canal Fulton resident lost a son in a 1995 car-train crash in which two others were killed and three were injured, including a second son.

"I'm very upset by this," an obviously shaken Moore said yesterday after learning of the ruling and taking several phone calls concerning the decision. "This is something we never thought would happen.

"We thought the justices would take the time to understand what this is all about. With this decision, the railroads now have the right to kill people, as they have in the past and will in the future, and not be held accountable or responsible for what happens at those dangerous crossings."

A strong supporter of Dedra Shanklin, whose case sparked the decision, Moore added, "I don't think this is the end of this. I am learning as the process goes on how laws are written and the process involved.

"this is probably the last straw for Dedra Shanklin, but I'm convinced there will be more cases. Hopefully, the court will finally understand what this is all about. They don't now, based on this ruling."

The justices, voting in the Shanklin case from Tennessee, said railroads are not financially liable if the equipment installed at a grade-level crossing was federally funded. The two dissenters, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens, said the decision "defies common sense and sound policy."

Congress has provided states with more than $3 billion since 1975 to increase safety at most of the nation's 170,000 public grade-level crossings. During that time, the number of fatal accidents at crossings has dropped from more than 1,500 per year to 431 in 1998.

"Nothing prevents a state from revisiting the adequacy of devices installed using federal funds," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court. "States are free to install more protective devices at such crossings with their own funds or with additional (federal) funding.

"What states cannot do-once they have installed federally funded devices at a particular crossing-is hold the railroad responsible for the adequacy of those devices," she said.

She was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Clarence Thyomas and Stephen G. Breyer.

The decision wiped out a $430,765 legal victory Shanklin had won against Norfolk Southern Railway Co. after the Oc. 3, 1993, death of her husband, Eddie, whose car was struck by a train at a crossing in Gibson County, Tenn.

The Clinton administration and various rail safety groups had urged the court to rule otherwise.

Steve Bryan, Canton's traffic engineer and co-chairman of the Stark County Railroad Safety Task Force, said he would withhold specific comment.

"I'd like to get more information before making any comments," he said late yesterday afternoon. "From what I see, I really don't understand the full extent of what the impacts can be. Hopefully, I'll know more about this by Wednesday night's task force meeting.

The meeting reference was to the already scheduled meeting of the rail task force at 7 tomorrow night at the Stark Regional Planning Commission offices, 201 Third St., N.E. in downtown Canton. The session is open to anyone interested in railroad crossing safety, Bryan said.

Moore and husband Dennis Moore created the Angels on Track Foundation with a $5.3 million settlement for the crash death of their 16-year-old son, Ryan Moore, on March 25, 1995.

The Moores have traveled the state and part of the country, emphasizing the importance of upgrading grade-level crossings with flashing lights and gates to protect motorists and passengers.

The foundation helps to fund crossing upgrades, which usually cost $115,000 to $150,000 each.

Ryan Moore, Alyson Ley of Clinton and Joshua White of Canal Fulton were killed in the crash at the Conrail crossing on Deerfield Avenue at the Stark-Wayne county line.

The crossing is at the base of a steep hill with trees sharply reducing the sight lines. The driver stopped, then started across the unprotected crossing because he didn't see the approaching train, estimated to have been traveling at 60 mph with three engines and 33 empty cars.

The crossing since has been upgraded with flashers and gates, as have several others in the region.

Ken Groves of the Canton traffic engineer's office, said one crossing on Price Street in Lexington Township's Limaville is to be upgraded this year with federal funds allocated through the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio.

An estimated 80 crossings a year across Ohio are upgraded with federal funding involved, according to a report earlier this year.

Norfolk Southern Railway spokesman Frank Brown called the decision "a good one" that "heads off second-guessing about the adequacy of warning devices after they've been installed with federal money."


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