HOW DO ACCIDENTS INVOLVING THE RAILROAD WORK?
Railroads were once the primary means of travel and shipping in the United States. Though airplanes and semi-trucks have largely displaced railroads, their unique history has given rise to laws specifically addressed towards railroad safety. And these laws were deemed necessary for good reason: positions dealing with railroads, even today, are among the most dangerous professions. Despite the greatly reduced number of railcars in use today, the extreme noise, speed, inability to quickly stop, and dependence on working rails, lead to several hundred injuries and several deaths each year. Below is an overview of common claims relating to railroad accidents.
Injuries To PassengersAs a “common carrier,” meaning a source of public transportation, railroads owe a heightened duty of care to passengers. This means that a railroad is responsible for injuries caused by a failure to adhere to the upmost care—greater than the usual standard of reasonable care. When a railroad fails to act with upmost care and causes injury to passengers, the company is responsible for those injuries. Common examples include failing to maintain rails or failing to sound the horn that leads to a collision with a car. An unfortunate truth regarding railcar accidents is they are generally very severe: the train is either virtually unfazed by what it hits or is completely derailed. To be certain, middle ground exists, but locomotives tend to mirror airplanes more than automobiles in the severity of crashes.
Injuries To Bystanders And OthersA railroad, including its operators and workers, must exercise reasonable care to not injure members of the public. For example, this means adequately sounding the train’s horn to warn vehicles and pedestrians that may be on the tracks. The installation of crossing arms has greatly reduced the number of fatalities that occur at railroad crossings. However, crossing guards and arms are not universally used. In fact, the frequency of these devices may contribute to a lack of the use of the train’s air horn, as conductors become complacent with the usefulness of these guards. Even today, it is extremely important that a train sound its horn to alert drivers that may be crossing the tracks. In Wait v. St. Louis-San Francisco Railway Co., a car ran into a train at an unmarked crossing. The court found that failure to sound the horn and post warnings that a railroad crossing was ahead were careless, particularly on the road which allowed cars to drive up to 55 mph. Based on these careless acts, the court found the railroad more at-fault than the driver of the vehicle, even though he had run head-on into the train as it began crossing the road.
Maintaining rails is also a source of claims. Though it is trespassing, railroads must anticipate children walking along tracks. As such, the company in charge of the rails must ensure they are free from hidden dangers that may harm these child trespassers. Common examples include loose cross boards or spaces between cross boards where a child could become trapped. A railroad may also place fences or gates around tracks were practical. The key is either preventing child trespassers from reaching the rails or ensuring that the tracks are free from hidden dangers if the tracks cannot be blocked off.
Injuries to Railroad WorkersWhen railroads were at their height of popularity, Congress recognized the extreme dangers that railroad workers could be placed in while on the job. To help make sure that adequate remedies existed for these workers, the Federal Employers Liability Act (“FELA”) was passed into law. Railroad workers are covered by FELA, rather than the Kansas Worker’s Compensation Act. FELA mirrors worker’s compensation, in that it gives a remedy to covered workers that are hurt on the job. However, the inherent danger of railroads led Congress to be more generous in the remedy provided by FELA. Generally, FELA offers higher damages than compared to worker’s compensation claims—particularly under the Kansas Act. The damages awarded under FELA are also not limited to physical injury, as is the case with worker’s compensation. Instead, pain and suffering, as well as emotional and mental damages are available.
However, FELA claims are not completely employee friendly. Unlike worker’s compensation, FELA claims require the injured employee to prove negligence. The employee must prove that the railroad—through other employees or management decisions—was careless in some way. This carelessness must result in the employee not being presented with a reasonably safe place to work. To compensate for this requirement of proving fault, the injured employee is given a “feather-weight” burden of proof. This means that the employee only needs to prove that the carelessness of the employer was partially responsible for a portion of the injuries. This is a much easier burden than normally placed upon a plaintiff attempting to prove negligence, but still more than the burden placed on a worker’s compensation claimant.
Railroad injuries can be among the most severe and life-changing in tort litigation. Whether the injured individual is a customer of the railroad, one of its workers, or a complete stranger to the company, the law can provide a remedy for injuries caused by locomotives. If you or a love one have been injured or killed in a railroad accident, contacting experienced legal counsel is imperative. The special legal positions granted to a railroad—including the heightened duty of care as a common carrier and the substitute for worker’s compensation in FELA—may place these claims outside the knowledge and comfort of less experienced attorneys. Before you trust your claim to an attorney, be certain you are confident in his ability to meet the unique challenges posed by railroad accident claims.