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Murphy v. Town of Darien

Supreme Court of Connecticut

July 9, 2019

Jamey MURPHY et al.

         Argued November 5, 2018

         Appeal from the Superior Court, Judicial District of Fairfield, Kamp, J.

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          James J. Healy, Hartford, with whom were Joel T. Faxon New Haven, and, on the brief, John P. D’Ambrosio, Hartford, for the appellants (plaintiffs).

         Robert O. Hickey, with whom, on the brief, were Beck S. Fineman Stamford, and Kerianne E. Kane, Bridgeport, for the appellee (defendant Metro-North Commuter Railroad Company).

         Robinson, C.J., and Palmer, D’Auria, Mullins and Kahn, Js.


         MULLINS, J.

         [332 Conn. 245] The sole issue in this appeal is whether the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 (railroad act), 49 U.S.C. § 20101 et seq., preempts the negligence claims brought by the plaintiff, Jamey Murphy, individually and as executrix of the estate of her late husband, Kevin Murphy (decedent), against the defendant Metro-North Commuter Railroad Company.[1] We conclude that the [332 Conn. 246] railroad act does not preempt the plaintiff’s negligence claims and, accordingly, reverse the judgment of the trial court rendered in favor of the defendant on that ground.[2]

          The following facts and procedural history are relevant to this appeal. On March 4, 2013, at approximately 6:30 a.m., the decedent, was walking on the platform adjacent to the westbound tracks at the Noroton Heights train station in Darien. The decedent

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was awaiting his commuter train to New York City. On that morning, there was a patch of ice on the platform, which measured approximately nine feet long and approximately one foot wide. As the decedent was walking on the platform, he encountered the ice patch, slipped and fell onto the westbound track closest to the platform.

          At that time, one of the defendant’s trains was coming around a curve and approaching the Noroton Heights station on the track closest to the westbound platform. This train was scheduled to travel through the Noroton Heights station without stopping and to do the same through four other commuter stations before completing its express route to Stamford. This type of train is referred to as a "through train."

          As the train approached the Noroton Heights station, the engineer sounded the train’s horn. He then saw an object on the track. When the engineer realized it was a person, he sounded the horn again and applied the emergency brake. Nevertheless, the train struck the decedent. As a result of the collision, the decedent suffered severe trauma and was pronounced dead at the scene.

         The plaintiff subsequently brought this action against the defendant. See footnote 1 of this opinion. Specifically, [332 Conn. 247] the operative complaint[3] alleges that the decedent’s injuries and death were proximately caused by the negligence of the defendant when "it violated practices and customs with respect to track selection by moving a through train traveling in excess of seventy miles per hour on the track immediately adjacent to the platform when reasonable care and general practice of [the defendant] required that train to be on an interior track away from the platform." The plaintiff also alleges that the defendant’s negligence caused her to suffer loss of spousal consortium. After discovery, the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff filed an objection.

         In support of that motion, the defendant asserted that the plaintiff’s negligence claims were preempted by federal law. Specifically, the defendant asserted, in pertinent part, that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the railroad act. The trial court agreed with the defendant, concluding that, "[t]o the extent that the plaintiff’s claim is viewed as relating to rail safety, it is preempted by the [railroad act]." Accordingly, the trial court granted the motion for summary judgment and rendered judgment thereon in favor of the defendant. This appeal followed.[4]

          On appeal, the plaintiff asserts that the trial court incorrectly concluded that her claims were preempted by the railroad act. Specifically, the plaintiff asserts that the railroad act only preempts claims where a federal regulation covers the subject matter, and no such regulation exists for track selection. In response, the defendant asserts that the trial court properly granted its motion for summary judgment because the plaintiff’s [332 Conn. 248] claims are preempted by the railroad act. Specifically, the defendant asserts that the subject matter of the plaintiff’s claim is covered by federal regulation— namely, regulations addressing speed and track classification. We agree with the plaintiff.

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          "The standard of review of a trial court’s decision granting summary judgment is well established. Practice Book § 17-49 provides that summary judgment shall be rendered forthwith if the pleadings, affidavits and any other proof submitted show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.... Our review of the trial court’s decision to grant the defendant’s motion for summary judgment is plenary.... On appeal, we must determine whether the legal conclusions reached by the trial court are legally and logically correct and whether they find support in the facts set out in the memorandum of decision of the trial court." (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Lucenti v. Laviero, 327 Conn. 764, 772-73, 176 A.3d 1 (2018). "[T]he use of a motion for summary judgment to challenge the legal sufficiency of a complaint is appropriate when the complaint fails to set forth a cause of action and the defendant can establish that the defect could not be cured by repleading." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Ferri v. Powell-Ferri, 317 Conn. 223, 236, 116 A.3d 297 (2015).

          In the present case, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the ground that the plaintiff’s complaint was insufficient because the negligence claims raised therein were preempted by the railroad act. Accordingly, resolution of this appeal requires us to examine the trial court’s conclusion that the plaintiff’s negligence claims are preempted by the railroad act.

          In doing so, we note that the question of whether the plaintiff’s negligence claims are preempted by the [332 Conn. 249] railroad act is one of law, and, therefore, our review is plenary. "Whether state causes of action are preempted by federal statutes and regulations is a question of law over which our review is plenary." Byrne v. Avery Center for Obstetrics & Gynecology, P.C., 314 Conn. 433, 447, 102 A.3d 32 (2014); see also Hackett v. J.L.G. Properties, LLC, 285 Conn. 498, 502-504, 940 A.2d 769 (2008) (whether trial court’s conclusion that municipal zoning regulations were preempted by federal law was a question of law over which court exercised plenary review). "[T]here is a strong presumption against federal preemption of state and local legislation.... This presumption is especially strong in areas traditionally occupied by the states ...." (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Dowling v. Slotnik, 244 Conn. 781, 794, 712 A.2d 396, cert. denied sub nom. Slotnik v. Considine, 525 U.S. 1017, 119 S.Ct. 542, 142 L.Ed.2d 451 (1998).

          "The ways in which federal law may [preempt] state law are well established and in the first instance turn on congressional intent.... Congress’ intent to supplant state authority in a particular field may be express[ed] in the terms of the statute.... Absent explicit [preemptive] language, Congress’ intent to supersede state law in a given area may nonetheless be implicit if a scheme of federal regulation is so pervasive as to make reasonable the inference that Congress left no room for the [s]tates to supplement it, if the [a]ct of Congress ... touch[es] a field in which the federal interest is so dominant that the federal system will be assumed to preclude enforcement of state laws on the same subject, or if the goals sought to be obtained and the obligations imposed reveal a purpose to preclude state authority....

          "The question of preemption is one of federal law, arising under the supremacy clause of the United States constitution.... Determining whether Congress has [332 Conn. 250] exercised its power to preempt state law is a question of legislative

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intent.... [A]bsent an explicit statement that Congress intends to preempt state law, courts should infer such intent where Congress has legislated comprehensively to occupy an entire field of regulation, leaving no room for the [s]tates to supplement federal law ... or where the state law at issue conflicts with federal law, either because it is impossible to comply with both ... or because the state law stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of congressional objectives ...." (Citation ...

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