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Estate of Haakenson v. Chicago Central & Pacific Rail Road Co.

Court of Appeals of Iowa

March 12, 2014

THE ESTATE OF TROY ELLIS HAAKENSON, By and Through its Administrator Melissa Haakenson, MELISSA HAAKENSON, as Parent and Next Best Friend of STEVEN HAAKENSON and KRISTINA HAAKENSON, and MELISSA HAAKENSON, Individually, Plaintiffs-Appellants,

Editorial Note:

This decision is published in table format in the North Western Reporter.

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Black Hawk County, George L. Stigler, Judge. Plaintiffs appeal from a ruling granting summary judgment adverse to them and in favor of defendants.

Brett J. Beattie of Beattie Law Firm, P.C., Des Moines, for appellants.

R. Todd Gaffney of Finley, Alt, Smith, Scharnberg, Craig & Gaffney, P.C., Des Moines, for appellees.

Considered by Tabor, P.J., McDonald, J., and Huitink[*], S.J.



Melissa Haakenson, on behalf of the estate of her deceased husband Troy Haakenson, as parent and next best friend of her children, and in her individual capacity, filed suit against the Chicago, Central & Pacific Railroad Company, d/b/a the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad Company (" Chicago Central" ), as well as two of its employees, George Peterson Jr. and Rick Mabe (collectively, hereinafter " Chicago Central" ), after Mr. Haakenson was killed in a vehicle-train crash. The plaintiffs asserted claims for wrongful death, negligence, loss of consortium, and loss of services. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Chicago Central, concluding that Haakenson's fault in causing the accident was greater than Chicago Central's fault, if any, and therefore recovery was barred pursuant to the Iowa comparative fault act. Further, the district court concluded the plaintiffs' state law claims were preempted by the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970, 49 U.S.C. § 20101, et seq., and Federal Highway Administration regulations.


" This court reviews a district court decision to grant or deny a motion for summary judgment for correction of errors at law." Griffin Pipe Prods. Co., Inc. v. Bd. of Review, 789 N.W.2d 769, 772 (Iowa 2010). " Summary judgment is appropriate where there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. The court reviews the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Id. The court indulges in every legitimate inference the evidence will bear in an effort to ascertain the existence of a genuine issue of fact. See Crippen v. City of Cedar Rapids, 618 N.W.2d 562, 565 (Iowa 2000). " A fact is material if it will affect the outcome of the suit, given the applicable law." Parish v. Jumpking, Inc., 719 N.W.2d 540, 543 (Iowa 2006). An issue of fact is " genuine" if the evidence would allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See Fees v. Mut. Fire & Auto. Ins. Co., 490 N.W.2d 55, 57 (Iowa 1992). If the summary judgment record shows that the " resisting party has no evidence to factually support an outcome determinative element of that party's claim, the moving party will prevail on summary judgment." Wilson v. Darr, 553 N.W.2d 579, 582 (Iowa 1996); see also Iowa R. Civ. P. 1.981(3). In addition, summary judgment is correctly granted where the only issue to be decided is what legal consequences follow from otherwise undisputed facts. See Emmet Cnty. State Bank v. Reutter, 439 N.W.2d 651, 653 (Iowa 1989).



On appeal, the parties expend most of their written effort arguing whether plaintiffs' claims are preempted by the Federal Railway Safety Act (hereinafter " FRSA" ) in combination with regulations promulgated by the Federal Highway Administration pursuant to the Federal-Railway-Highway Crossings Program. By preemption, as used here, we mean that federal law sets the required standard of care with respect to the adequacy of warning devices at rail crossings and disallows state law claims related to the same. See Norfolk S. Ry. Co. v. Shanklin, 529 U.S. 344, 358, 120 S.Ct. 1467, 146 L.Ed.2d 374 (2000) (holding state statutory and common law claim regarding adequacy of warning signs and reflectorized crossbucks was preempted). In Shanklin, the Supreme Court held that state law relating to the adequacy of warning devices at rail crossings is preempted by federal law on the same subject matter but only when federal funds participate in a rail crossing improvement project that is completed. See id. at 353. Subsequent to Shanklin, Congress amended the FRSA to clarify the scope of preemption. The amendment provides a savings clause for state law causes of action alleging a party's failure to comply with the federal standard of care or the party's failure to comply with its own plan, rule, or standard of care created pursuant to federal regulation or order. See 49 U.S.C. § 20106(b); Driesen v. Iowa, Chicago & E. R.R. Corp., 777 F.Supp.2d 1143, 1149 (N.D. Iowa 2011). Plaintiffs contend that state law is not preempted where the improvement ceases operating, but the Supreme Court made clear that federal law " displaces state and private decision making authority" once the improvement becomes operational without regard to whether the improvement was actually operating at the time of the accident. See Shanklin, 529 U.S. at 354; see also Anderson v. Wis. Cent. Transp. Co., 327 F.Supp.2d 969, 975 (E.D. Wis. 2004) (stating " once a claim challenging the adequacy of a warning device is preempted, preemption is not erased because the device is not properly maintained" ).

The central fighting issue between the parties regarding preemption is whether the preemption threshold--the showing that federal funds participated in an approved and completed project--has been met. Chicago Central contends that the undisputed facts show federal funds were used to improve the railroad crossing at which this accident occurred. The plaintiffs do not so much dispute that Chicago Central has provided affidavits stating that federal funds were used to complete the project at issue. Instead, the plaintiffs contend that the affidavits are not competent because each of the affiants lacks personal knowledge as to whether federal funds actually were used--as opposed to approved to be used--to complete the project as planned. See Iowa R. Civ. P. 1.981(5) (" Supporting and opposing affidavits shall be made on personal knowledge, shall set forth such facts as would be admissible in evidence, and shall show affirmatively that the affiant is competent to testify . . . ." ); Pitts v. Farm Bureau Life Ins. Co., 818 N.W.2d 91, 96 (Iowa 2012) (stating that court should only consider admissible evidence in evaluating summary judgment). Plaintiffs further contend that the contracts, inventories, and other documents show only that federal funds were approved but do not show the approved funds were actually expended. Although the contract committing the federal government to provide ninety percent of the cost of the improvement seems sufficient to establish funds were used, ...

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