On the morning of May 6, 1994, Thomas Gollihue was driving a Laidlaw sanitation truck for his employer south on Currier Road in Union County. His fellow employee, Bernard Garrett, was riding as a passenger. Currier Road runs parallel with railroad tracks owned by Conrail, the tracks located to the west of Currier.
When Gollihue reached Converse Road, which intersected perpendicular to Currier, he attempted to turn right, toward the railroad tracks. Because the railroad trucks crossed Converse very close to the intersection, Gollihue was unable to complete the turn before his front tires crossed the tracks. Gollihue’s truck was immediately hit by a Conrail train, killing Garrett and severely injuring Gollihue.
Gollihue retained Allen Schulman in an action against Conrail. Schulman argued that the railroad had failed to install adequate warnings at this dangerous crossing. Several accidents had occurred at this particular crossing in the preceding years. Despite this fact, the crossing was marked by a cross-buck only. Schulman maintained that, had the crossing been marked with lights or cross-bars, the crash would have been avoided. Schulman also sought punitive damages, alleging Conrail refused to voluntarily upgrade railroad crossings because such action would decrease profits.
The case was tried in conjunction with the case filed by Bernard Garrett’s estate. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Gollihue and the Garrett estate, awarding $3,507,000 in compensatory damages and $8,000,000 in punitive damages.
Conrail appealed the case, claiming that federal law precluded the jury from finding the railroad negligent. Specifically, Conrail argued that because the Secretary of Transportation approved funds to help install the cross-bucks at the Converse Road crossing, the Secretary must have determined the cross-bucks adequate to protect motorists. The appellate court agreed with Gollihue, holding that federal law preempted state tort law only if the Secretary of Transportation expressly found the crossing-devices adequate for a particular crossing.