NOBLE, Okla. — A man who once said he feared it would take a tragic death to end lengthy blockages of a key grade crossing by halted trains has filed a wrongful death suit against BNSF Railway after his father died awaiting an ambulance held up at the crossing.
The case could have national ramifications, as Oklahoma has asked the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to revisit a 2020 decision striking down its Blocked Crossing Statute as an unconstitutional abrogation of federal authority over railroad operations.
The statute was enacted in 2019 in response to complaints about increasing delay times at grade crossings as a result of longer train lengths and railroad congestion, permitting local authorities to collect fines of $1,000 when trains stopped on a crossing for more than 20 minutes.
Chad Byrd was among those who had publicly lobbied for government action to prevent lengthy blockages of the only road to his neighborhood, telling local news reporters he feared that someone might die awaiting emergency aid. His father suffered a heart attack five years later and died while an ambulance sat at the crossing for more than an hour. His lawsuit alleges its crew refused a police request to move the train to allow access.
The law he hoped would provide some relief was enacted a year earlier but was quickly derailed by a court injunction blocking its enforcement. Two cities issued tickets to BNSF train crews soon after it went into effect, leading to an immediate and ultimately successful challenge of the state law by BNSF in federal court.
Oklahoma is arguing that while the court held that the law usurped the sole regulatory authority over railroad operations granted to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board under the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act, the state believes its statute was crafted solely to protect public safety and should be permissible under the Federal Railroad Safety Act.
The court gave no indication how long it will consider the matter before issuing a ruling, but a reversal would have broad implications for the industry and could spur other states to adopt similar laws.
In his 2020 ruling striking down the Oklahoma statute, U.S. District Judge Charles B. Goodwin agreed that public safety could be affected by railroad operations but said such safety issues could be addressed by local governments in ways that did not conflict with federal law. That language may come up in the defense of BNSF against the wrongful death suit, as local authorities did open an alternate route to Byrd’s neighborhood in the wake of the incident.
Ironically, Chad Byrd’s comments in 2015 to local TV news crews calling for action on the crossing blockages “before a tragedy occurs” could be used by BNSF to illustrate that local governments knew of the problem years earlier and could have acted to address it beforehand, rather than afterward.