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Swinomish Indian Tribal Community v. BNSF Railway Co.

ELR Citation: 45 ELR 20168
Nos. C15-543RSL, (W.D. Wash., 09/11/2015) (Lasnik, J.)

A district court held that a Native American tribe that occupies land on Fidalgo Island in Skagit County, Washington, may go forward with trespass and breach of contract claims against a railroad company for violating the terms of a right-of-way easement agreement. The easement grants the company the right to run one 25-car train per day in each direction across the tribe's reservation. It also requires the company to annually report the nature and identity of the cargo transported over the right-of-way. But according to the tribe, the company is currently operating six 100-car trains per week in each direction. Nor has the company provided annual updates regarding the contents of cargo transported over the reservation. The company argued that the tribe's claims fall under the primary jurisdiction of the Surface Transportation Board (STB) and should be dismissed without prejudice so that STB may address certain threshold issues. But the court disagreed, concluding that referring the matter to STB is neither efficient nor necessary. While STB would be able to shed light on the nature of the common carrier's obligations and the importance of uniformity in the regulation of rail transportation, those issues are addressed in the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act and published agency decisions. STB has no expertise in the other areas of law that will govern the outcome of this case. Because STB is not better equipped to handle the variety of issues that will arise in the action, the court denied the company's motion to dismiss or stay the case.