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High court sides with railroad in Elm Grove collision

July 22, 2014

A railroad company is off the hook for a Memorial Day parade collision in the Village of Elm Grove in 2009 that left a West Allis man and an Elm Grove police officer severely injured.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a traffic jam blocking the railroad tracks did not amount to a specific hazard, which could have held Soo Line Railroad Co. liable for striking a minivan that was stuck on the tracks.

Monica Ensley-Partenfelder and her husband Scott took separate cars to enjoy the holiday festivities that holiday. Scott was traveling in one car while Monica followed in her minivan. But then, vehicles in front of Scott stopped suddenly to let out passengers. Monica, her 2-year-old child, and her vehicle were on the tracks as the train approached. Monica attempted to steer around her husband's vehicle, but in turning her wheels, became stuck in the tracks.

Elm Grove officer John Krahn raced to help her out. He and Scott then turned their efforts to the backseat, where the couple's 2-year-old child was in a car seat.

The child was unharmed by the collision, having remained strapped in the car seat; however, Krahn and Partenfelder were not so lucky.

The collision sent both men flying a few feet and they were taken to Froedtert Hospital for treatment. Partenfelder's injuries required multiple surgeries and Krahn suffered broken bones in his leg, shoulder, pelvis, and ribs. In 2011, Krahn was forced to take duty disability and give up his law enforcement career due to the injuries.

The lawsuit against Soo Line, a subsidiary of Canadian Pacific Railway, argued that the company should have issued an order for trains to reduce their speed while proceeding through the area due to the parade.

The court said that the parade created only a "generally dangerous traffic condition." Despite the 5-2 ruling in favor of Soo Line, the court has left one question open, sending a question back to Milwaukee County Circuit Court to address whether there was potential negligence by the train's crew in how it responded to the situation.

The Supreme Court's decision comes as an important victory for the railroad industry, which could have set a precedent leading to railroads being liable for negligence in a variety of scenarios.

"Letters could come to the railroad asking for slow orders for events from birthday and graduation parties to family reunions, to races and marathons, all of which might happen only once a year," Justice David Prosser wrote. "Railroads would face the constant dilemma of either slowing their trains or risking prolonged litigation and potential liability."

The Milwaukee County Circuit Court previously ruled in favor of the railroad company, stating that the parade presented only a potential hazard, therefore protecting the company via federal law. However, the State Appeals Court reversed that ruling last year. The Supreme Court announced that it would hear the last October.

Federal law requires trains to slow down or stop in reaction to obstructions defined as "specific hazards." In its ruling, the state appeals court called the Elm Grove parade a "specific hazard;" however, Prosser and four other justices labeled it as "general" on Tuesday.

Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley voted that the negligence claim be allowed to go forward, saying that the parade was a unique occurrence that could lead to a likely collision.

"It is important that trains run on time, but it is more important that the people and property of the state be kept safe," Abrahamson wrote.

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