Angels on Track reacts to railroad ruling

The Sun Journal

April 27-May 3, 2000

By: Shane Riggs-News Editor

Vicky Moore is livid.

A Supreme Court ruling last week essentially eliminating railroad responsibility from fatal crashes if the rail used federal dollars, left Moore - one of the founders of the Angels on Track Foundation - spinning.

"It was quite a shock," she said. "When I heard this, it knocked me to my knees. I thought about our case and what might have happened if this had occurred earlier. I thought there was no way on earth they could rule against families and what we have been through."

On March 25, 1995, Moore's son, Ryan, 16, was killed along with two other friends, also 16 - Joshua White and Alyson Ley - at a railroad crossing in Lawrence Township.

The three lives were taken when Ryan, his brother, and four of their friends were hit by a Conrail train as they crossed tracks on Deerfield Ave. which were not equipped with warning lights and signals.

Ryan was in the back seat with Joshua and Alyson. His older brother, Jason, was driving and had even slowed down to cross the unmarked tracks. The front of the car had cleared the tracks. The train struck the rear. The three passengers in the front - Jason, Joshua's younger sister Rebecca and Jennifer Helms - sustained injuries - many of them serious - but survived. The three who were killed instantly were in the backseat.

That crossing has been the site of eight deaths since 1975. The last fatal accident before the crash that took the life of the three motoring friends had only been two months prior.

The railroad line on which the fatal accident of five years ago occurred had previously benefited from federal funding and, under the new ruling, would have been exempt from any liability.

The Supreme Court justices voted seven to two last week, citing a Tennessee case, and ruled that railroads are not financially responsible if the equipment used to upgrade a crossing was federally funded.

"The railroad has been exempted from any responsibility," said Moore.

The ruling also sets a dangerous precedent, in which Moore believes railroads will now wait even longer to upgrade crossings.

"They will wait," she said. "Why would the railroads improve it when they can get the federal funding which excludes them?"

Moore credits two justices - Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Paul Stevens - for objecting to the ruling.

"They said it defies common sense," said Moore.

This is not the first time the Supreme Court has ruled in favor the railroads. In 1993, a mandatory financial requirement was lifted from the railroad and the contribution was ruled voluntary instead. That ruling, called the Easterwood decision, made it possible for the railroad companies to voluntarily contribute 10 percent to the cost of crossing improvements.

Moore believes the railroads would now wait until the federal funding was available before making the improvements, making the 1993 ruling virtually nonexistent.

Moore and her husband Denny, their foundation, and the national coalition, in which they had been involved, will keep fighting.

"Success is getting up one more time than you've been knocked down," she said. "We will get back up. This just makes us all the more determined. For one day, I was depressed. Then I started thinking again."

The Moores - who do not see themselves as crusaders - did not stop with The Angels on Track Foundation.

The Moores were instrumental in helping found a railroad safety task force in Wayne County as well as one in Stark County, in which Stark County Commissioner Donald Watkins now chairs.

The Moores goal is to establish a railroad safety task force in the 80 counties in Ohio that have functional rails. They have testified before Congress and have met with other families who have been victimized by car-train collisions to lend their support.

In November, the Moores hosted a symposium of similar foundations and safety organizations in the national and a national chapter - The National RailRoad Safety Coalition - was developed.

It is that coalition the Moores has turned to now.

The couple is determined to make railroad safety its priority. The foundation is established to provide local reimbursement grants for railway improvements.

It is not just the support of others who have been through the same situation that Moore, the foundation and others like it will seek. They also have the support of the Clinton Administration.

"Our only hope comes from the fact that the Clinton Administration backed us. Congress can step in and correct this error in judgment and draw up some legislation," she said. "If that stays the way it is, it gives the railroad the right to keep killing and take no responsibility for it."

The e-mail messages and the phone started ringing at the Moores' house the moment the ruling was announced.

"Now we have more people involved. Everyone I have talked to doesn't know how the Supreme Court could have done this," Moore said. "We want to keep the railroads accountable."

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