For the third time in as many months, an AMTRAK passenger train has been
involved in a fatal accident. In this week’s post, our train accident
injury lawyer will review the known facts of the most recent accident
before explaining the legal rights of accident victims and the compensation
that may be available to the families of those who suffered fatal injuries.
The Facts of The Train Crash
As with any public transportation accident, initial reports are often inaccurate.
However, analysis of the publicly-available video and still photography
from the accident site seems to confirm the initial reports that the AMTRAK
passenger train struck a stationary freight train belonging to CSX Transportation.
According to a report in the online edition of the (Columbia, SC)
State, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said that the reported fatalities
were two of the eight AMTRAK employees known to have been on the passenger
train at the time of the accident. The same report also noted that there
were over 100 additional injuries, most of which were relatively minor,
and involved passengers rather than AMTRAK employees.
Given that both fatalities were employees of Amtrak (the train’s
engineer and its conductor) and the pattern of physical damages sustained
by both trains, it appears that the AMTRAK was on a side track rather
than the main line when it struck the motionless and unoccupied CSX freight.
If this does prove to be the case, liability will probably fall onto CSX
for three reasons:
1. The rail yard where the accident occurred was owned by CSX Transportation.
Tort law has long held that 1) an owner or employer is responsible for
the actions (and inactions) of its employees and 2) the employer can be
sued for the direct consequences of the actions of its employees. In the
South Carolina accident, the AMTRAK train was passing through a rail yard
owned and operated by CSX, a freight train operator.
2. If the AMTRAK unit was indeed on the wrong section of track, only a
CSX switchman could have set the switches that placed the AMTRAK train
on a collision course with the parked CSX train.
One of the primary duties of a railroad switchman is to open and close
a series of manually-operated switches that direct a train onto a particular
section of track. Since it would be impractical for train personnel to
frequently start and stop a train each time a such a change became necessary,
responsibility for such actions falls to the local yard switchman.
3. The CSX rail-yard personnel failed to properly monitor the AMTRAK train’s
position, the and speed while it was inside the yard.
The Law of Tort can be summarized as “If it happens on your property,
you are at fault!” Based on the data given in #1 and #2, above,
yard personnel failed to notice the AMTRAK’s location, speed, and
the fact that the switch was in the wrong position. Although there were
no early reports regarding the AMTRAK’s speed at the time of the
accident, the extent of damage to both trains suggests that the AMTRAK
was moving at something more than a leisurely pace as it passed through
the rail yard.
Any on the job injury, including accidental death, involving a railroad
employee falls under the jurisdiction of the Federal Employers Liability
Act (FELA). Under current interpretation of FELA, an employee (or an employee’s
surviving family) need only show some evidence that an employer acted
in a careless manner and that there is some logical connection between
the negligent act and the injury. Cases involving FELA injuries have consistently
held that the plaintiff (injured party) does not need to show that the
injury was directly related to the act of negligence but that even seemingly
minor lapses in judgment are sufficient to establish liability in FELA cases.
Although early accounts from the immediate area of the accident suggest
that more than 100 AMTRAK passengers were injured in the accident, these
same early reports state that those passengers sustained relatively minor
injuries. However, the law makes no distinction regarding the seriousness
of injury and the liability of another party in causing such injuries.
Why You May Need a Railroad Accident Lawyer
There are many legal issues that may influence a lawsuit involving AMTRAK,
such as the statutes of limitations (“time limits”) for filing
a claim, jurisdiction (federal courts vs. state courts), the possibility
of contributory negligence by the injured party, “damage caps”
(an upper limit, established by law, on the total amount of damages that
can be awarded by a court) and the potential for involvement of third-party
defendants. Failure to comply with every procedural detail at every stage
of a railroad injury lawsuit can result in a plaintiff being denied a
fair settlement of an injury claim.
The very nature of interstate public transportation accidents leads to
issues regarding jurisdiction(which court, and where, has jurisdiction
in an accident case), diversity of citizenship (residents of different
states and even foreign countries as plaintiffs and defendants in civil
lawsuit). In the current case, the potential liability of governmental
and quasi-governmental agencies (technically, AMTRAK is the operating
arm of the privately-held National Railroad Passenger Corporation but
receives considerable funding from the federal government in the form
of subsidies) also raises issues that are unique to national rail transportation.
As we have seen, the legal issues in such cases are complex and in some
cases even contradictory.
If you were injured in an AMTRAK-related accident, you are urged to contact
an experienced railroad accident lawyer before speaking with anyone regarding
a settlement of your potential injury claim. Only an experienced accident
will have access to the considerable resources that may be necessary to
prove the validity of your injury claim.