Iowa Supreme Court upholds ruling in lawsuit against railway claiming 2008 flood damage worsened by collapse of rail bridges

Workers with CRANDIC Railroad look at debris collected at a rail bridge across the Cedar River that collapsed during las
Workers with CRANDIC Railroad look at debris collected at a rail bridge across the Cedar River that collapsed during last month’s flooding this morning, Thursday, July 24, 2008. Workers were hauling in several loads of rocks on the other side of the river to build a base for a causeway out into part of the river that a crane will use to remove the mangled bridge. Officials hope to complete the project in 30 or 40 days. “It was a monumental project going up in 1903, and I’m sure it will be again this time,” said Elaine Duvall, a CRANDIC employee.(Jeff Raasch/The Gazette)

The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday upheld a district court ruling that property owners cannot sue railroads for damages in the 2008 flood.

The plaintiffs, who are seeking $6 billion in damages, filed the class-action lawsuit in June 2013, claiming railways caused the extreme flooding in Cedar Rapids when railcars filled with rocks were placed on the CRANDIC rail bridge near Penford Products in an effort to prevent the bridge from collapsing.

It collapsed anyway and, the plaintiffs argued, worked as a dam, “causing and/or exacerbating” the Cedar River flooding, which resulted in “great and extensive property damage and other damage.”

The property owners filed the lawsuit in Linn County District Court against the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway Co., Union Pacific Railroad Co., Union Pacific Corp. and Alliant Energy Corp., claiming negligence and other state law violations.

Sixth Judicial District Judge Paul Miller in February 2016 said federal law trumps the property owners’ claims because the bridges at issue are “inextricably intertwined” with the defendants’ railroad tracks, which affects rail transportation.

The claims go directly to rail transport regulations, and the actions taken by railway companies are an “essential part of the railroads’ operations,” which are covered under federal law.

The Iowa Supreme Court agreed, ruling the federal Interstate Commerce Termination Act, which has jurisdiction over transportation by rail carriers and operations of railroad tracks, pre-empts the property owners’ claims in state court.


Justice Edward Mansfield, writing for the majority, said not all state law claims involving railroads are pre-empted by federal authority, but this claim that involves the “second-guessing of decisions made by railroads to keep their rail lines open are expressly pre-empted.”

Cedar Rapids attorney Sam Sheronick, in a statement on behalf of four other attorneys representing the property owners, said they will ask for a review of the decision.

“We respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling and look forward to seeking review of the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court so that our clients can hopefully get their day in court where we can present evidence, the truth and scientific facts to prove what caused the 2008 flood in Cedar Rapids while exposing the great lengths others took to hide the truth from the public,” Sheronick said.

Alliant Energy, parent company of the CRANDIC, did not return a call for comment Friday afternoon.

The lawsuit, pending since 2013, was moved to U.S. District Court based on the theory that state law claims were pre-empted by federal law. The court agreed and dismissed the case, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit reversed it and sent it back to state court.

In the years after the flood, consultants and city, state and federal officials have termed the flood a natural disaster, with the rail bridge collapse playing a minor role in the height of the record 31.12-foot crest.

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