Supreme Court Sides with Railroad

The Texas Supreme Court sided with a railroad against a woman who inhaled toxic gas released after one of its trains failed to stop at a signal, hit another train, and derailed.

The woman sued the railroad alleging, among other things, that the car containing the toxic gas should have been positioned further to the rear of the train. In the suit, the railroad’s chemical safety manager testified in a deposition before trial that it had no obligation to position the car containing the dangerous chemicals further to the rear. As a result, the woman’s attorney sought the railroad’s rate structures in order to prove how the railroad computes charges for carrying toxic chemicals. When the railroad objected, a protective order limiting disclosure of the confidential rate information was proposed in the trial court. Nevertheless, the railroad refused to provide the information.

The Texas Supreme Court, in the opinion of In re Union Pacific Railroad Company released on September 25, 2009, ruled that the railroad could keep its secrets unless the woman had a “need” for the information to get a fair trial. She pointed out that she needed to counter the railroad’s argument that putting the “hazmat” cars in the rear would be cost-prohibitive. Additionally, she argued that the railroad already charges more for carrying hazmat cars, but ignored its responsibility when it assembled the trains. The Supreme Court said that the woman did not establish her need. It ruled that the woman could not find out, and therefore the jury deciding the case will not hear, the railroad’s secret pricing for hazmat cargo.