Legal Considerations in Train and Railroad Accidents


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According to the Federal Railroad Administration, approximately 3,000 train accidents occur each year in the United States, and nearly 1,000 people die each year as a result. Railroad accidents may be in the form of a collision with another train, a car or bus, or even a derailment or fire.

Common causes of train accidents include:

Mechanical or electrical failures;
Track, roadbed, and structural defects or maintenance problems; and
Human error, including signal and communication problems, driver fatigue or inexperience.

For any given accident, more than one of these factors may have contributed. Those injured by train accidents, or surviving family members of those killed by such occurrences, must identify all of the responsible parties and file a claim against them before the statute of limitations expires. For example, if a government-owned railroad is at fault, the injured party may have to provide special notice of the claim to the railroad within a limited amount of time, sometimes as few as 3060 days. As a result, it is critical that victims of train and railroad accidents contact an attorney for help with these cases as soon as possible.

Common Carriers

Common carriers are entities that transport people or goods according to defined routes and schedules. They include railways, as well as airlines, cruise ships, trucking companies, and other transportation-for-hire providers. Common carriers have a legal duty to make sure that their cargo and passengers safely reach their destinations. They will be held liable for injuries to passenger that happen during transportation if the carrier could have prevented the accident by exercising greater care. Obviously, this includes railways who acted negligently while transporting you, your loved ones, or your cargo.

Federal and State Laws

Under the Interstate Commerce Act, Congress has the authority to regulate common carriers that transport passengers or cargo across state lines. Federal laws governing railways take precedence over state laws, but each state also regulates public transportation systems operating within its state. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) oversees railroad operations, and creates and enforces rail safety regulations. Federal and state laws also set forth specific common carrier regulations. The regulations usually apply to equipment requirements, licensing, and transportation procedures. Often, violations of any of these regulations creates what is known as liability per se. In other words, simply by showing that the train company failed to comply with these regulations will be sufficient to establish the liability element of a claim against that company, leaving only damages to be determined.

Responsible Parties

Determining who was responsible for the accident may be difficult in many accidents, as it may have been a combination of errors leading to the ultimate outcome. Those injured may have an obvious claim against the train operator and railway owner. But, if the accident was caused by a defective or malfunctioning train or railway part, then there may also be state product liability laws that would permit the passengers to pursue a claim against the manufacturer of the part, as well as those who sold it, installed it, or repaired or serviced the part. Obviously, this creates a number of additional pockets that can contribute to any settlement or judgment, but identifying these parties will likely require the assistance of a qualified, experienced personal injury attorney with the resources to investigate this type of case.

Injured Railway Workers: Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA)

Passengers are not the only people injured in train accidents. Often railway workers may also sustain serious injuries or even die on the job. In addition to state laws and worker's compensation programs, the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) also protects injured railway workers. FELA requires that an injured railway employee demonstrate that some act, or failure to act, by the railroad contributed to his/her injury. Contrast that with state worker's compensation programs that provide benefits for rail workers without having to show the railroad was at fault, and you can see that the requirements will be more difficult to achieve, but can be vital to make sure you receive the benefits to which you are entitled.

FELA applies when an accident occurred in the scope of the injured worker's employment with the railroad, where the railroad is engaged in interstate commerce between two or more states, and the railroad somehow contributed to the injuries. You will have to show that the railway failed to provide a safe work place, but if you can do so FELA provides for recovery of damages for past and future pain and suffering, past and future loss of earnings, past and future medical expenses, and mental injuries, such as emotional distress. It also provides for compensation for the survivors of a deceased railroad employee.

Consequently, just as with passengers, if you are a railway worker (or the survivor of one) who was injured or killed on the job, you should immediately contact an attorney who can assist you in pursuing your claims including not only worker's compensation, but also FELA, and other claims like negligence.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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