Sparks Fly on Liability in Senate’s Rail Debate
Supporters of the rail bill that has pulled lawmakers into special session this week have argued that liability provisions of the train legislation have changed from the plan that was defeated in the Senate last session.
But early into the Senate’s first chance to talk up the plan to boost passenger rail in Florida, debate on liability provisions in the legislation was basically the same, though a few of the faces were different.
The first minor skirmish of the session came Thursday when one of the newest members of the Senate said that previous arguments about the liability provisions of the bill being debated this week were misguided.
The legislation, in part, would allow the state to buy and upgrade 61 miles of track from railroad giant CSX Corp. to run commuter trains on – but the deal would also allow CSX to continue to haul freight on the tracks, leading to questions over who would be responsible for accidents on the state tracks involving CSX trains.
“This is about allocating insurance risk,” Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said during a workshop the entire Senate held on SB 2-B. “Even if we did not indemnify CSX, the state is still going to be sued when there’s an accident involving an injury.
“Most trespassers are not going to recover,” he continued. “If you trespass onto a railroad track and you get run over, the odds of you recovering are not very high. This is really about who’s paying for insurance, who’s covering deductibles and I think it reaches a fair and balanced distribution between the state of Florida and the freight train company.”
Negron said that the structure of the bill would allow for quicker resolution of harm done to Floridians and tourists.
“We could have created a complex system where we spend five or ten years litigating blame, because…there’s probably 45 or 50 scenarios that someone could be injured in a train accident involving commuter trains and also freight trains,” he said. “Instead of doing that, we’ve created a shared ‘no-fault’ system where we know in advance who’s responsible for what.”
Negron said too much focus has been placed on the possibility that the state could be responsible for an accident caused by errors by CSX’s employees and equipment.
“Sometimes the freight train company, CSX, could be responsible when the state makes a mistake,” he said.
But the senator widely credited for putting the brakes on SunRail in 2008 and 2009 held stop signs up again Thursday. Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who has parlayed leading the opposition to the proposed Orlando train into a 2010 gubernatorial campaign, said there’s more to it.
“It’s not all about insurance,” she said. “We are statutorily indemnifying a freight rail from whom we’ve purchased rail track in perpetuity, and its successor, against any fault, failure and negligence. If...it is all about insurance, why don’t we restructure this deal to state that the state of Florida will pay for the insurance, but CSX needs to indemnify the state of Florida?”
In another testy exchange, Dockery also took issue with Sen. Jeremy Ring’s early contention that paying for South Florida's Tri-Rail system – another large component of the rail package being debated – would create jobs.
“How many jobs were created when Tri-Rail went into existence 20 years ago,” Dockery asked Ring, who responded that has Tri-Rail currently has 330 employees and took issue with Dockery’s line of questioning.
“All I can tell you is today it is 330,” Ring said. “I wasn’t living here 20 years ago. And I’m not sure what that has to do with the bill. I’d like to know where we’re going with this. Roads cost money as well. This is not a multiple choice quiz.”
“It has everything to do with the bill,” Dockery rejoined. “You’re talking about creating jobs.”
Despite the early fireworks, the Senate won’t take any votes on the rail bill until early next week, with floor action beginning Monday evening. The House Economic Development Council, which is expected to vote on the plan this evening so the full chamber can take it up, has blocked out more than six hours for the measure Thursday afternoon.