Railroads continue to play a vital role in the American economy. There are more than one hundred thousand miles of rail line throughout the country. While passenger use of railroads has declined over time, rail transportation continues as a popular high-volume, low-cost method to ship freight and goods.
The ongoing use and popularity of America's rail system is not without cost. Each year thousands of railroad workers suffer injuries and death while engaged in work-related duties. Railroad passengers also continue to be injured and killed while traveling by train, though declining usage has resulted in an overall decrease in the number of passengers injured. The most shocking number of non-work-related train accidents and injuries occur at railroad/highway crossings. According to the Federal Highway Administration, a train strikes a vehicle or a pedestrian at a rail crossing approximately every 2 hours in the United States. These 12 daily incidents have the potential of producing catastrophic injuries and deaths.
Whether or not a person injured or killed in a train accident may recover damages in a lawsuit often depends on the type of accident and/or the relationship between the injured party and the railroad. These two factors usually determine the duty the railroad owed to the person injured or killed and will determine which laws will govern the lawsuit. Because railroad injury law is complex, you should consult a personal injury attorney with train accident experience if you or a loved one has suffered a railroad related injury.
Railroad/Highway Crossing Accidents
A person injured or killed by a train at a crossing may have a claim for negligence against the involved railroad. Generally, negligence is a failure to exercise reasonable care to protect others from foreseeable dangers. In order to succeed on a negligence claim against a railroad, an injured person must show that the railroad owed them a duty.
That duty may arise in a number of ways in a crossing accident. While trains generally have a superior right of way to vehicles, the railroad must use reasonable care under the circumstances of the crossing. Such care may include erecting crossing barriers, crossing guards or warning signs, selecting the appropriate protective device and ensuring its adequate maintenance. The train engineer also has a duty to issue auditory warning signals at certain crossings and a duty to try and slow down in order to avoid an accident once it becomes apparent that the train is in danger of striking a vehicle or person.
Often a duty exists because the railroad owns or controls the property where the railroad tracks are located. As the entity in control of the property at the crossing, the railroad may have an obligation to ensure a minimum visibility at the crossing and the responsibility to remove any conditions that create crossing hazards. Some of those duties may be shared by the state or federal agency with control over the roadway that crosses the railroad tracks. Ultimately, recovery will depend on the exact facts of any given accident. The early involvement and advice of an experienced attorney may help determine the final result.
Passenger Accidents and Derailments
Railroads are common carriers. They provide transportation to anyone who pays the stated fare and must do so without prejudice. As a common carrier, railroads have an obligation to use the highest degree of care and diligence to protect their passengers, as well as a duty to warn passengers of known dangers that exist along the way.
In most states, therefore, passengers are owed an even greater duty than the duty owed to people at railroad crossings. Railroads must protect passengers from hazards in passenger compartments, between railroads cars, and while boarding and unloading. While not an absolute insurer of passenger safety, railroads have a duty to protect passengers from harmful acts by third parties, including attacks by other passengers.
Railroads also face liability for passenger injuries and deaths caused by train derailment. Though derailments do not occur frequently, when a train leaves the tracks recent history clearly shows that catastrophic injuries and death frequently result. Non-passengers injured during a derailment may also have a claim against the involved railroad. Usually, courts will assess a railroad's responsibility in such cases under general negligence law principles and use standards similar to those employed in crossing accidents.
Railroad Worker Injuries
The Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) controls injuries sustained by a railroad worker in the scope of his or her employment. Unlike state worker's compensation laws, which provide benefits on a no-fault basis, FELA is based on principles of fault. To prevail in this type of a claim, an injured worker must establish that the railroad did, or failed to do, something that constitutes negligence.
FELA imposes specific duties on the railroad and a breach of those duties constitutes negligence. Generally, the railroad has a duty to provide a safe place to work. That means a railroad has an obligation to provide adequate manpower, tools and equipment when needed, proper maintenance of tools and equipment and adequate inspection of off-premise work areas. Railroads must also develop and enforce work safety rules for their employees. If a railroad employee suffers an injury because the railroad failed to comply with any of these duties, the railroad may be liable for money damages.
A successful claim under FELA must satisfy three basic requirements. The worker must have been injured in the course and scope of his/her employment with the railroad; the railroad must be engaged in commerce between two or more states (interstate commerce); and it must be proven that the railroad's negligence played some part in causing the employee's injuries.
If the three requirements are met, then a railroad worker may be entitled money damages for past and future pain and mental suffering, disability, medical and hospital expenses, and future lost earnings. Additional benefits are recoverable in a death case.
FELA covers most injuries sustained in the course of a railroad worker's employment, including repetitive trauma injuries like traumatic arthritis, occupation diseases like hearing loss or asbestosis and any work-related aggravation of a pre-existing condition.
A FELA case must be filed within three years of the date of the injury. If a suit is not filed within the Statute of Limitation time period, whatever rights an injured worker has will be lost permanently. It is, therefore, critical to consult with an attorney with experience in FELA litigation as soon as possible after a railroad work-related accident.
Accidents on and around trains continue to injure thousands of people each year in the United States. Often, recovery for injuries sustained depends upon the relationship or status of the injured person to the railroad that hurt them. Both federal statutes and developed case law make clear that railroads owe railroad passengers and railroad employees special duties of care. Injuries suffered by passengers and employees are controlled by clear rules of law that usually allow for recovery when a railroad fails to fulfill the duties it owed.
Railroad crossing cases may prove more complex than other types of railroad injuries. Proving breach or failure by the railroad to fulfill its duties is usually more dependent upon the individual circumstances of each train accident. In all train accident cases, it is important to receive legal advice from a personal injury attorney with railroad experience in order to fully assess your claim and pursue all available sources of recovery.