Passenger trains such as Amtrak and Metrolink are “common carriers.” As such, these train lines owe their passengers the highest degree of care and safety, and they can be held liable for injuries to and deaths of passengers resulting from even their slightest carelessness (“negligence”). The duty of passenger and commuter trains toward their occupants as common carriers is discussed in Chapter 11, “Municipal Transportation (Mass Transit) Accidents.” Toward non-passengers, the train owes only the ordinary duty to act carefully and not subject those off the train to an unreasonable risk of harm or injury. Non-passenger-carrying freight trains owe persons that same standard of care, the ordinary duty to act carefully and not put others at an unreasonable risk of harm.
On a Friday afternoon, September 12, 2008, at approximately 4:30 p.m., a Metrolink commuter train traveling through the city of Chatsworth crashed head-on into a freight train, killing 25 people and injuring 135 more. Both trains were on the same section of a single track that runs from Chatsworth station— which is double tracked—through Santa Susana Pass. The line returns to double track again as it enters the Simi Valley. Three tunnels under Santa Susana Pass are wide enough only to support a single track; expanding the area to accommodate double tracks would be financially prohibitive. The line’s railway signaling system is designed to ensure that trains wait on the double track section while a train is proceeding in the other direction on the single track. The Metrolink train would normally wait in the Chatsworth station for the daily Union Pacific freight train to pass before proceeding, unless the freight train was already waiting for it at Chatsworth.
This was Metrolink’s deadliest accident ever, and the country’s deadliest railroad accident since an Amtrak crash in Mobile, Alabama killed 47 people 15 years earlier in 1993. The investigation showed that, despite warning lights, the Metrolink train had failed to stop or move to an outer track before encountering the freight train. The preliminary investigation showed that an engineer aboard the Metrolink train was using his cellular phone to text message a teen-aged railroad enthusiast in the minutes immediately prior to the collision. The last message he sent was just 22 seconds before the two trains collided.
A complaint filed against Metrolink and its contractor who provided the engineers alleged that Metrolink knew locomotive engineers were using their cellular phones to make telephone calls and send text messages on the job, even though these actions violated railroad rules prohibiting the use of cell phones while on duty. Federal investigators said that the engineer, who was killed in the collision, was supposed to have stopped at a red signal just before a switching mechanism that would have guided the freight train to a side track. Instead, the engineer allowed the train to careen over the switch at over 40 mph, bending it badly, before colliding with the freight train on a sharp curve about a quarter of a mile past the warning light. In addition to the engineer’s alleged misconduct on the job that led to the crash, investigators also studied the position of the warning lights, stating that the position of trackside warning lights could have increased distractions for the engineer. Several witnesses interviewed by a newspaper reporter stated that the signal was visible from the station, and the signal was green as the Metrolink train left the Chatsworth station just before the collision. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators tested the railway signal system after the accident and found it to be working properly. The signal system should have shown proper signal indications to the Metrolink train, with two yellow signals as the train approached the Chatsworth station, and a red signal at the switch north of the station.
The NTSB conducted a final sight distance test in which identical locomotives as those involved in the collision were brought together at the point of impact and slowly backed away from each other. They found that the trains’ engineers could not see each other until less than five seconds before the collision.
Accidents such as the one in Chatsworth can often be avoided by the use of a system such as “positive train control” (PTC), a safety backup system that can automatically stop a train that runs a red warning light and thus frequently prevents collisions. The Federal Railroad Administrator told a reporter several days after the accident that PTC would have stopped the train before there was a collision. The NTSB member leading the investigation stated that she was convinced that such a system as PTC would have prevented the accident.
Note that the duty owed by a railroad to its passengers includes not only those who are actually onboard the train, but also to those getting on and off the train. Further, the heightened standard of care extends from the depot to the waiting platform.
In 1997, then President Bill Clinton signed into law The Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act (ARAA) which, among other things, limits the amount of money victims or their families can receive. Recovery is limited to $200 million per accident—for everyone involved. The $200 million limit is for “the aggregate allowable awards to all rail passengers” from any single passenger rail accident. That includes both economic damages (such as medical expenses and lost wages) and noneconomic damages (such as pain and suffering). It also includes any punitive damages that may be awarded by a jury for deliberate misconduct, although the ARAA makes it much tougher to win a claim for punitive damages. While the ARAA names Amtrak in particular, the $200 million limit is applicable to all passenger trains. Although $200 million may sound like a considerable amount of money, it really isn’t, particularly in train accidents that have the capacity to injure and kill hundreds of people, as in the Chatsworth incident. The constitutionality of the $200 million aggregate limit has not yet been tested in court.
While in office, President George W. Bush signed legislation that would have prevented persons injured in railroad accidents from suing in state court, limiting them to federal courts. However, on his first day of office, President Barack Obama stayed that rule. The reason the railroads want the cases tried in federal court is because state court juries tend to be more generous with their awards when they find someone was at fault.
Freight trains can derail and overturn, rupturing hazardous material containers, causing a burst of toxic fumes to escape and form a cloud of substances dangerous to neighboring areas. People who are in the area of such an accident and suffer injuries or death as a result of breathing in the toxic substances can sue various defendants to recover adequate compensation for their medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, and other injuries and damages.
For instance, in 2005, a Norfolk Southern Railroad derailment ruptured a tank car carrying chlorine, killing nine people. Derailments or other accidents that result in the emission of hazardous and toxic chemicals can affect thousands of people in the area. If a person dies from inhaling toxic substances, his survivors can bring a wrongful death action against anyone who was negligent in causing the accident. Persons and entities that might be liable in the case of a train derailment or collision include the locomotive engineers and conductors, the railroad company itself, any independent contractor that supplies workers to the train company, the company that maintains the rails, and the persons or entities that are in charge of managing the flow of trains along the tracks.
The United States has approximately 140,000 public railroad crossings (also called “level crossings” or “grade crossings”). Of these crossings, approximately 50,000 have gates, 23,250 have flashing lights, and some 1,250 have highway traffic signs, wigwag signals, and bells. In the early days, railroad crossings had a flagman in a booth who would wave a red flag or lantern to stop all traffic and clear the tracks when a train was approaching. According to the NTSB, more than 80 percent of public railroad crossings do not have lights and gates, and 60 percent of all railroad accidents occur at these unprotected crossings.
Preventing railroad crossing accidents has been a concern ever since the invention of the iron horse. A number of different techniques have been used. In the early days, when a farmer or shepherd was moving his animals across the tracks, the gate would swing open to allow the farmer and his animals to pass over, but the gates would form a protective barrier to prevent the livestock (and people) from roaming onto the railroad tracks.
All public rail crossings in the United States are required to be marked by at least a crossbuck, which is the sole warning device in many rural areas. A crossbuck is simply a wooden post with the words “Railroad” and “Crossing” attached to it at a 45 degree angle. More heavily traveled crossings are equipped with automatic warning devices (AWDs), with alternate flashing red lights to warn automobile drivers and a bell to warn pedestrians of an approaching train. Crossing gates block the approach of motor vehicles to the tracks when activated. Now many crossings are using four-quadrant gates to prevent drivers from going around the gate that only bars travel for the lanes they are driving in.
With the automatic warning devices (AWDs), about 30 seconds before the train gets to the crossing, the train trips a track circuit near the crossing, which triggers the crossing signals. The red lights begin to flash alternately and a bell mounted at the crossing starts ringing. After several seconds, the gates (if the crossing is so equipped) begin to lower, which takes five to ten seconds. Most bells continue ringing throughout the entire procedure—from the time the red lights start flashing signaling the approach of a train until the gates have returned to their full upright position. The bells on some AWDs stop ringing once the gates are lowered. Approximately 15 to 20 seconds before it reaches the crossing, the train begins ringing its bell and sounding its horn in accordance with federal rules. The horn sounds as follows: two longs, one short, and one long. The train continues to sound the horn until the engine occupies the crossing. If the automatic warning device is equipped with a horn, the AWD may provide the whistle signal instead of the train; however, the train must continue to ring its bell. Once the train has cleared the crossing, the gates (if present) begin to rise, and the bells (if silenced) may begin ringing again. Once the gates are back to their fully raised position, all warning signals, including the lights and bells, are deactivated.
Technology exists that could prevent many vehicles from trying to beat the train by ignoring a gate barrier and driving around it and onto the railroad tracks, where it could be hit by a train. For instance, a gate that is long enough to extend over both sides of traffic, or a gate that also covers both sides of the road would discourage many, if not most drivers, from trying to beat the train. A new device called a “StopGate” is made up of two extended length arms that block the entire width of the roadway and lock into a securing device on the other side of the road. The gate arms are reinforced with high-strength steel cable, which helps the gate absorb the impact of a vehicle trying to crash through it.
When a driver maneuvers around a lowered gate barrier and tries, unsuccessfully, to cross the track before the train reaches the crossing, it can be difficult to prove that the railroad was negligent in any way. However, passengers in the car who are hurt—or the surviving family members of a passenger who was killed in the accident—may have the right to sue the driver (or her estate in case of death) for negligence in not obeying the barrier.
Some railroad crossings become dangerous because of overgrown trees or vegetation or buildings that block the driver’s view of the tracks and approaching trains until it is too late to avoid them. In other cases, warning devices such as gates, bells, and lights that are designed to alert drivers that a train is coming are either broken or not installed where they should be.
Carelessness (“negligence”) of the railroad workers may also contribute to a railroad crossing accident. The train may be traveling too fast in a populated area, not giving drivers enough time to react and avoid a collision. This is particularly true when, in addition to speeding, the train fails to sound its whistle, leaving drivers unaware that a train is approaching until it is too late to take evasive measures. The train company may also be liable for failing to properly train its engineers, conductors, and other employees involved in the operation of the train, making their employees work long hours without sufficient rest, or failing to supervise and/or suspend employees who have a history of safety violations related to alcohol or drug abuse.
When the injured victim claims that the railroad crossing was dangerous because of its design, non-functioning or malfunctioning gates, signal lights, and/or bells, or other defect, be aware that if a governmental agency was in charge of designing, erecting, constructing, or maintaining the railroad crossing, you usually must file a claim with the appropriate governmental agency within six months or your claim may be lost forever. This is one of the main reasons you should contact an experienced personal injury lawyer as soon as possible after an accident involving an allegedly defective and dangerous railroad crossway.
In most industries and professions, when an employee suffers a job-related injury, she is able to collect worker’s compensation benefits, even if the employer was not at fault in any way. Indeed, the worker can collect worker’s compensation benefits even if the injury was her own fault. However, the railroad industry is an exception to this. There is no worker’s compensation scheme to protect railroad workers who suffer on-the-job injuries. This does not mean, however, that the injured railroad worker has no right to be compensated when he is injured.
In 1908, in response to the thousands of deaths and injuries of railroad workers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Congress passed the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) for the purpose of providing compensation to railroad employees who are injured on the job. FELA allows injured employees to file claims directly against their employers where it can be shown that the railroad was negligent in some way and caused the employee’s injuries. To recover under FELA, the injured employee must prove that his employer was careless (“negligent”) in some way, and that negligence resulted in the worker’s injuries. Negligence can be defined as the railroad’s failure to exercise reasonable care toward its employee so as not to injure him. Examples of negligence include not providing a safe place to work, proper tools and equipment to do the job, or adequate training or assistance.
The doctrine of “comparative negligence” applies in FELA case. Under the rules of comparative negligence, if the worker was partly at fault for causing the accident, his recovery is reduced by the amount of his comparative negligence. Thus, if the railroad was found 75 percent responsible for the accident and the worker was determined to be 25 percent at fault, the worker’s recovery would be reduced by 25 percent under the rules of comparative negligence.
FELA provides that the injured railroad employee may file a lawsuit in the state or federal courts and have a jury decide the damages to which he is entitled, if any. Generally, an injured railway employee has three years to sue his employer for damages. However, if the accident involved a train or track owned and operated by a governmental agency (such as the United States, a particular state, a county, or a city), a proper claim for damages must be filed with the proper governmental agency within six months of the accident or the right to sue the governmental agency is lost forever.
Unlike worker’s compensation laws, under FELA there is no schedule of benefits that the injured worker is entitled to receive weekly or otherwise. Rather, there are elements of damages the injured worker can recover, such as past and future medical expenses, lost wages and loss of earning potential, permanency of the injury and effect on lifestyle, past and future pain and suffering, disfigurement, and emotional distress. A successful FELA personal injury or wrongful death case usually results in a significantly higher amount of recovery than if the victim or survivors had to pursue their claims under worker’s compensation laws.