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*fn* decided: April 21, 1993.



White, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court with respect to Parts I and II, and the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts III and IV, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Blackmun, Stevens, O'connor, Scalia, and Kennedy, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which Souter, J., joined.

Author: White

JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Thomas Easterwood was killed on February 24, 1988 when a train owned and operated by petitioner and cross-respondent CSX Transportation collided with the truck he was driving at the Cook Street crossing in Cartersville, Georgia. His widow, respondent and cross-petitioner Lizzie Easterwood, brought this diversity wrongful death action, which alleges, inter alia, that CSX was negligent under Georgia law for failing to maintain adequate warning devices at the crossing and for operating the train at an excessive speed. The issue before the Court is the extent to which the Federal Railroad Safety Act of 1970 (FRSA), 84 Stat. 971, as amended, 45 U.S.C. §§ 421-447 (1988 ed. and Supp. II), pre-empts these claims.

The District Court for the Northern District of Georgia granted summary judgment for CSX on the ground that both claims were pre-empted. 742 F. Supp. 676, 678 (1990). The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding that respondent's allegation of negligence based on the train's speed was pre-empted but that the claim based on the absence of proper warning devices was not. 933 F.2d 1548, 1553-1556 (1991). Because Courts of Appeals have differed over the pre-emptive effect of FRSA on negligence suits against railroads, we granted the petitions of both parties. 505 U.S. (1992).*fn1 We now affirm.


FRSA was enacted in 1970 "to promote safety in all areas of railroad operations and to reduce railroad-related accidents, and to reduce deaths and injuries to persons . . . ." 45 U.S.C. § 421. To aid in the achievement of these goals, the Act specifically directs the Secretary of Transportation to study and develop solutions to safety problems posed by grade crossings. § 433. In addition, the Secretary is given broad powers to "prescribe, as necessary, appropriate rules, regulations, orders, and standards for all areas of railroad safety . . . ." § 431(a). The pre-emptive effect of these regulations is governed by § 434, which contains express saving and pre-emption clauses.*fn2 Thus, the States are permitted to "adopt or continue in force any law, rule, regulation, order, or standard relating to railroad safety until such time as the Secretary has adopted a rule, regulation, order, or standard covering the subject matter of such State requirement." Even after federal standards have been promulgated, the States may adopt more stringent safety requirements "when necessary to eliminate or reduce an essentially local safety hazard," if those standards are "not incompatible with" federal laws or regulations and not an undue burden on interstate commerce.

In 1971, the Secretary, acting through the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), promulgated regulations under FRSA setting maximum train speeds for different classes of track. See 49 CFR § 213.9 (1992). Also in 1971, and again in 1972, the Secretary duly reported to Congress on the problem of grade crossings and on possible solutions.*fn3 Congress responded by enacting the Highway Safety Act of 1973, Title II of the Act of Aug. 13, 1973, 87 Stat. 282, as amended, note following 23 U.S.C. § 130. This Act makes federal funds available to the States to improve grade crossings, in return for which the States must "conduct and systematically maintain a survey of all highways to identify those railroad crossings which may require separation, relocation, or protective devices, and establish and implement a schedule of projects for this purpose." 23 U.S.C. § 130(d). Further conditions on the States' use of federal aid to improve grade crossings have been set out in regulations promulgated by the Secretary through the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) under FRSA and the Highway Safety Act. See 23 CFR pts. 646, 655, 924, 1204 (1992). It is petitioner's contention that the Secretary's speed and grade crossing regulations "cover the subject matter" of, and therefore pre-empt, the state law on which respondent relies.*fn4

Where a state statute conflicts with or frustrates federal law, the former must give way. U.S. Const., Art. VI, cl. 2; Maryland v. Louisiana, 451 U.S. 725, 746 (1981). In the interest of avoiding unintended encroachment on the authority of the States, however, a court interpreting a federal statute pertaining to a subject traditionally governed by state law will be reluctant to find pre-emption. Thus, pre-emption will not lie unless it is "the clear and manifest purpose of Congress." Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp., 331 U.S. 218, 230 (1947). Evidence of pre-emptive purpose is sought in the text and structure of the statute at issue. Shaw v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 463 U.S. 85, 95 (1983). If the statute contains an express pre-emption clause, the task of statutory construction must in the first instance focus on the plain wording of the clause, which necessarily contains the best evidence of Congress' pre-emptive intent.

According to § 434, applicable federal regulations may pre-empt any state "law, rule, regulation, order, or standard relating to railroad safety." Legal duties imposed on railroads by the common law fall within the scope of these broad phrases. Cf. Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc., 505 U.S. , (1992) (slip op., at 16) (federal statute barring additional "requirements . . . 'imposed under state law'" pre-empts common-law claims); id., at (slip op., at 5-6) (SCALIA, J., concurring in judgment in part and dissenting in part) (same). Thus, the issue before the Court is whether the Secretary of Transportation has issued regulations covering the same subject matter as Georgia negligence law pertaining to the maintenance of, and the operation of trains at, grade crossings. To prevail on the claim that the regulations have pre-emptive effect, petitioner must establish more than that they "touch upon" or "relate to" that subject matter, cf. Morales v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 504 U.S. , (1992) (slip op., at 7) (statute's use of "relating to" confers broad pre-emptive effect), for "covering" is a more restrictive term which indicates that pre-emption will lie only if the federal regulations substantially subsume the subject matter of the relevant state law. See Webster's Third New International Dictionary 524 (1961) (in the phrase "policy clauses covering the situation," cover means "to comprise, include, or embrace in an effective scope of treatment or operation"). The term "covering" is in turn employed within a provision that displays considerable solicitude for state law in that its express pre-emption clause is both prefaced and succeeded by express saving clauses. See supra, at 3.


After filing an answer denying the allegations of negligence with respect to the warning devices at Cook Street and with respect to the train's speed, petitioner moved for summary judgment on the ground that these claims were pre-empted. As the case comes to us, petitioner does not assert that the complaint fails to state a claim under Georgia law. The sole issue here is pre-emption, which depends on whether the regulations issued by the Secretary cover the subject matter of the two allegations, each of which we may assume states a valid cause of action.*fn5 As indicated above, the Secretary of Transportation has addressed grade crossing safety through a series of regulations. Each State receiving federal aid is required to establish a "highway safety improvement program" that establishes priorities for addressing all manner of highway hazards and guides the implementation and evaluation of remedial measures. 23 CFR pt. 924 (1992).*fn6 In setting priorities, the States are directed to consider and rank the dangers posed by grade crossings. § 924.9(a)(4). Having developed a program, each State must evaluate its effectiveness and costs, § 924.13, and file yearly reports with the FHWA. § 924.15.

States are subject to further regulations governing the use of particular warning devices. For all projects, they must employ devices that conform to standards set out in FHWA's Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD or Manual).*fn7 23 CFR §§ 646.214(b)(1), 655.603 (1992). In addition, for projects which involve grade crossings "located within the limits of or near the terminus of a Federal-aid highway project for construction of a new highway or improvement of [an] existing roadway," see § 646.214(b)(2), or in which "Federal-aid funds participate in the installation of the [warning] devices," regulations specify warning devices that must be installed. See §§ 646.214(b)(3) and (4). Thus, States must employ automatic gates with flashing light signals as part of any improvement project that concerns a crossing which features, inter alia, multiple tracks, high speed trains operating in areas of limited visibility, heavy vehicle or train traffic, or if a diagnostic team made up of "representatives of the parties of interest in [the crossing]" recommends them.*fn8 For federally funded installations at crossings that do not present the track conditions specified in § 646.214(b)(3), "the type of warning device to be installed, whether the determination is made by a State . . . agency, and/or the railroad, is subject to the approval of the FHWA." § 646.214(b)(4).

The regulations of 23 CFR pt. 924 do not of themselves support petitioner's claim of pre-emption. These provisions establish the general terms of the bargain between the federal and state governments: the States may obtain federal funds if they take certain steps to ensure that the funds are efficiently spent. On its face, this federal effort to encourage the States to rationalize their decision-making has little to say about the subject matter of negligence law, because, with respect to grade crossing safety, the responsibilities of railroads and the State are, and traditionally have been, quite distinct. Before the enactment of FRSA, for example, Georgia's authority over grade crossing improvements did not excuse a railroad's liability in negligence for failing to maintain a safe crossing, see n. 5, supra, just as a jury finding of railroad negligence bore no particular significance on the State's safety efforts beyond that which the State wished to give it. Certainly there is no explicit indication in the regulations of 23 CFR pt. 924 that the terms of the Federal Government's bargain with the States require modification of this regime of separate spheres of responsibility. And, contrary to the view of the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, it does not necessarily follow that "the hit-or-miss common law method runs counter to a statutory scheme of planned prioritization." Hatfield v. Burlington Northern R. Co., 958 F.2d 320, 324 (1992). In fact, the scheme of negligence liability could just as easily complement these regulations by encouraging railroads -- the entities arguably most familiar with crossing conditions -- to provide current and complete information to ...

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