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Learn about train accidents and lawsuits involving railroad companies
Illinois is the center of the nation’s rail network.
Consider the following statistics:
- More freight moves through Illinois than any other state (more than 500 million tons)
- Illinois is the only state where the 7 Class 1 railroads operate
- Chicago is home to the nation’s largest rail system
- Nearly 500 freight trains and 700 passenger trains travel through Chicago every day
- Nearly 2 million passengers take Illinois Amtrak every year
Train accidents are rare compared to car accidents. According to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), there were 1,922 train accidents in 2018. In contrast, there were more than 6 million car accidents in 2018.
But even though train accidents are uncommon, those who’ve seen the Illinois-based film Planes, Trains, and Automobiles know to expect the unexpected when travelling.
Let’s take a closer look at train accidents in the Prairie State.
Types of train accidents
Train accidents are commonly classified by cause and effect. Common causes include:
- Driver error (excessive speed, mishandling the engine, etc.)
- Signalmen error (allowing 2 trains into the same occupied block section, etc.)
- Mechanical failure (poor design, etc.)
- Civil engineering failure (track faults, bridge and tunnel collapses, etc.)
- Acts of other people (suicide, terrorism, etc.)
Common effects include:
- Head-on collision
- Rear collision
- Collisions with buffer stops
- Obstructions on the line
- Fires and explosions
The 1999 Bourbonnais Train Accident
On March 15, 1999, Amtrak’s City of New Orleans passenger train collided with a semi-truck loaded with steel in Bourbonnais, Illinois. The train derailed and 11 people were killed. Amtrak’s equipment damages totalled roughly $14 million.
A subsequent investigation concluded that the accident was caused by the truck driver who, in an attempt to beat the train across the tracks, proceeded across the tracks despite the flashing warning lights.
The driver was ultimately sentenced to 2 years in prison for manslaughter. In addition, he faced numerous civil cases from the families of the deceased, all of which were settled out of court.
The FRA conducts a host of activities to promote railroad safety. As part of this mission, the FRA investigates a majority of significant railroad accidents.
According to the FRA, there were 148 train accidents in Illinois in 2019.
Who can be held responsible for a train accident?
Railroad companies and their employees owe passengers and bystanders a duty to use reasonable care to avoid causing injury to them or their property.
If this duty is breached and an accident occurs, the injured party can sue for negligence. Depending on the nature of the accident, one or more of the following parties may be responsible:
- The railroad company
- The train operator
- The manufacturer of the train or train components
- A government entity that owns or operates the railroad
If more than one party is liable, damages may be divided among the various parties in an amount determined by the judge or jury.
Keep in mind that while the employee of a railroad company may have caused the accident, the railroad company may ultimately be held liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior, so long as:
- The employee was acting within the scope of their employment at the time of the negligent act, and
- The employee’s act wasn’t criminal or intentional.
Just as railroad companies and their employees owe passengers and bystanders a duty to use reasonable care to avoid causing injury, other drivers and pedestrians owe a duty to use the same reasonable care.
As a result, the estate of a driver who ignores flashing warning lights or a pedestrian who commits suicide by stepping out onto the tracks can be held liable for any damages caused as a result of the accident.
What damages are recoverable?
Railroad accidents are no different than car accidents in terms of what damages can be recovered. In Illinois, a person injured in a train accident can be compensated for the following damages:
- Past and future medical costs
- Lost wages
- Property damage
- Pain and suffering (physical and mental)
- Loss of consortium
- Wrongful death
Wrongful death claims for fatal train accidents
Because train accidents are often fatal (805 people were killed in train accidents in 2018), it’s worth talking briefly about wrongful death actions.
A wrongful death action can be filed by certain family members of an individual killed in a train accident. The family members must prove negligence the same way the deceased would have had to prove negligence had they survived.
If the family members are able to prove negligence, they can recover damages. The damages are meant to compensate surviving family members for the loss of emotional and financial support brought on by the death of their loved one.
Injury claims for injured railroad workers
The Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) provides a system of legal recovery for railroad employees and their families when a railroad worker is injured on the job. FELA replaces workers’ compensation for railroad employees.
In other words, a railroad employee can’t file a workers’ compensation claim (like most employees), but instead has to file a claim under FELA.
There are some major differences between FELA claims and workers’ compensation claims.
The biggest difference is that FELA is a fault-based system. This means that a railroad employee seeking to recover damages under FELA must prove that the employer was negligent in order to recover damages. Workers’ compensation, on the other hand, is a no-fault system — meaning injured workers in other professions don’t have to take the extra step of proving fault. This is a downside, as it can make it harder for injured railroad workers to obtain compensation for a work-related injury.
The second major difference (and good news for railroad workers) is that injured railroad employees can recover more money under FELA. While workers’ compensation is typically capped at a certain amount, there are no damage limits under FELA. What’s more, workers can receive pain and suffering damages under FELA; whereas, workers typically can’t receive pain and suffering damages under workers’ compensation laws.
FELA also requires railroad companies to meet certain workplace standards. Failing to meet any of these standards provides a basis for recovery by the injured employee. Some of these standards include:
- Providing a safe workplace
- Exercising a reasonable level of care for employee safety
- Providing employees with safe equipment, tools, and safety devices
- Choosing appropriately safe methods to carry out work
- Providing the proper level of help to ensure that work is carried out
- Inspecting the workplace for hazards that would inhibit safety
- Creating and enforcing rules and best practices for safety
Do I need an Illinois train accident attorney?
Lawyers who handle car accident cases don’t necessarily specialize in train accident cases. In fact, only certain attorneys tend to specialize in railroad law. Whether your attorney handles railroad cases exclusively or not, it’s important that they at least have experience handling train accident cases.
When you meet with an attorney, don’t hesitate to ask them about their experience handling cases such as yours. If you’re not completely sold, ask them to provide you with some references.
Here are some questions you can ask the attorney to help you determine if they would be a good fit for you:
Personal Injury Attorney Interview Sheet
Worksheet with questions to ask a personal injury attorney to help determine if he or she will be a good fit for your case
Download in PDF format
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.