Railroads are less frequently traveled today than they were over the course of American history, but there still remain over 600 railroads in the United States and hundreds of thousands of miles of railroad track. Unfortunately, train accidents still happen too. More than 2,500 train accidents occur every year, according to the Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration. Under the Department of Transportation Act of 1966, the Federal Railroad Administration has authority to oversee and promulgate rail safety regulations.
Types of train accidents include derailments, crashes with other trains or vehicles, and pedestrian injuries at unprotected railroad crossings. These accidents may be caused by conductor error, railway negligence, mechanical failure, a distracted pedestrian, a negligent motor vehicle operator, or an object, such as a stalled car, sitting on the tracks. Inspection or maintenance violations can also lead to accidents. Fault determines whether and from whom an injured person may recover after a train accident.
Common carriers must use the highest degree of care to reasonably ensure their passengers’ safety.
Railroad companies as well as commuter rail lines are considered common carriers. Common carriers are entities that transport members of the public for a fee. They cannot guarantee their passengers' safety, but they are required to use the highest degree of care and vigilance—doing all they can reasonably do under the circumstances—to avoid harm coming to passengers. State laws also cover transportation entities operating within their boundaries, including trains.
Railroads are legally required to install a "black box" in most locomotives. Black boxes are electronic recording devices that record information that may be important after an accident, including the train speed, what direction it was going, how the brakes were used, and whether a horn signal was used. Similarly, all train signals are controlled automatically and monitored in dispatch centers. This information can be recovered by an accident victim trying to prove train engineer or railroad negligence.
Passenger trains travel so fast without requiring any special protection for passengers that any sort of train accident can result in catastrophic injury or death. Passengers can also be injured while boarding or leaving the train. If a railway owner or operator fails to meet the high standard of care required for common carriers and causes a train accident that injures a passenger, the injured passenger can collect compensatory damages including medical expenses, lost income, out-of-pocket expenses, and pain and suffering.
Bystanders are most often hurt or killed at unprotected crossings, which are those that have no lights or signals to indicate that the train is approaching. There are over 140,000 crossings in the United States and according to the Federal Highway Administration, less than 25% of railroad crossings are unmarked. Bystanders may also be hurt in train derailments or hazardous cargo spills.
Fault determines whether compensation may be recovered for a bystander's injury or a wrongful death. A railroad is negligent if a crossing arm doesn't work, or a warning signal fails to sound an alarm. If a train engineer is negligent in the course and scope of doing his or her job, that negligence may be imputed to the railroad. On the other hand, if a bystander acts with negligence, such as by crossing in spite of multiple warning sounds and the crossing arm coming down, and there is no error by the railway, it may not be possible to recover compensation.
Comparative & Contributory Negligence
Depending on a state’s comparative or contributory negligence laws, a negligent bystander may still be able to recover some damages.
Injured Railroad Workers
The Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) protects injured railroad workers who are hurt in the scope of employment for a railroad that is engaged in interstate commerce between two or more states. Under FELA, a railroad must offer a reasonably safe work environment, enforce safety rules, conduct inspections to ensure the workplace is hazard-free, offer adequate training and supervision to employees, make sure workers are safe from intentional acts of harm, and not use unreasonable work quotas.
To recover for a worker injury under FELA, the worker must show that an act or omission by the railroad caused or partially caused the injury. If all elements are met, an injured worker can recover damages for medical expenses, lost income, and emotional distress. When a railway employee dies and FELA applies, the worker's survivors can obtain compensation. State workers' compensation systems also provide benefits to injured railroad workers, but the benefits are granted without regard for fault.