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.