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Justices to hear argument in blocked railroad crossings case

May 14, 2018

The question of whether state or federal law determines how long trains can block traffic at railroad crossings will come before the Indiana Supreme Court during oral argument this week.

The justices will hear the case of State of Indiana v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co., 18S-IF-00193, at 9:45 a.m. Thursday. Virginia-based Norfolk Southern Railroad Company will appeal an Indiana Court of Appeals ruling that found federal law does not preempt a state law that prohibits trains from blocking crossings for more than 10 minutes.

Specifically, the Court of Appeals ruled in October that the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act and the Federal Railroad Safety Act do not preempt Indiana Code section 8-6-7.5-1, which imposes the 10-minute timeframe. The railroad company had argued the federal law did preempt the state statute after the state issued 23 citations for violations of the statute.

The Allen Superior Court agreed with the Norfolk Southern and granted summary judgment, but the appellate court reversed after noting that other federal circuits have given states the power to regulate railroad crossings.

“The ICCTA does not include language regarding regulation of a blocked crossing for traffic regulation purposes,” Judge Melissa May wrote for the unanimous panel in October. “Without state action, railroads would be allowed to block major thoroughfares for an infinite amount of time because the federal regulation is silent.”

Prior to the Norfolk Southern case, the high court will hear David Wright v. State of Indiana, 18S-CR-00166, at 9 a.m. on Thursday. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed David Wright’s child molesting convictions in January after the Blackford Circuit Court determined a search of the apartment Wright was living in was unconstitutional.

Though the trial court also determined incriminating statements Wright made to police after the search were obtained independently of the unconstitutional search, the appellate court disagreed and instead found the statements were directly derived from the search. Those statements included Wright’s admission to having “some kind of contact” with two of the children with whom he shared an apartment.

Thus, the appellate panel overturned Wright’s convictions under the fruits of the poisonous tree doctrine. The state now appeals.

Finally, the court will hear one case on petition to transfer on Thursday. Raymond Brown v. Bucher and Christian Consulting, Inc., 49A04-1611-PL-02564, began when Raymond Brown filed a complaint against BCForward, his former employer, alleging salary-based wages were not paid pursuant to the Ten-Day Rule in the Indiana Wage Payment Statute.

Brown left BCForward in March 2016, but in 2015 the Indiana General Assembly amended the statute so that employers could be held liable for unpaid wages, attorney fees and court costs. Thus, because Brown received all the wages he was owed, the Marion Superior Court and Court of Appeals determined he could not seek damages under the amended statute.

“It is apparent that in effecting these statutory changes, the legislature intended to cure the defect or mischief that existed in the prior statute that permitted exorbitant recovery in cases in which there were no actual unpaid wages and where the employer acted in good faith,” Judge John Baker wrote in November. “... Given the remedial nature of the 2015 amendment and the penal nature of the Wage Payment Statute, we can only conclude that the 2015 amendment may be applied retroactively.”

Brown will urge the justices to grant transfer to his case at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday.  

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