Train travel is generally safe, but occasionally tragic accidents happen on the tracks
Many Maryland residents commute to and from work either to Baltimore or nearby Washington, D.C. The Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) train offers rail transportation from Brunswick, Penn, and Camden into D.C.
If you’re taking a trip between cities, you might also be using the Amtrak train, which has a hub at Baltimore Penn Station.
If you’re injured while on a train, the defendant (liable party) and location will both matter with respect to what court has jurisdiction to hear your lawsuit. For example, if you’re riding the MARC train that’s maintained and run by the state of Maryland, it’s likely that an injury would be handled in Maryland even if the accident happens in D.C.
A Maryland commuter train heading toward Union Station in Washington, D.C. collided with an outgoing Amtrak train and burst into flames in Silver Spring. Twelve people were killed and many more injured on the 4-car train. Moments before impact, conductors realized that a crash was imminent and they ran through the cars yelling at passengers to get on the floor because the Amtrak train had begun to roll through a crossover to the commuter train’s track. (source)
Types of Maryland train accidents
When a train crash or derailment happens, it’s usually called a “disaster” because it could involve several fatalities or injuries at once — which makes sense, because trains and planes are the only vehicles that carry such a large number of passengers at a time.
But the reality is that most train accident injuries are not because of crashes or derailments, even though these rare catastrophes are more widely publicized.
The more common causes of a train-related accident include:
- A slip and fall accident on the platform or while boarding or disembarking the train
- Injuries resulting from luggage in the aisle, or shifting and falling from overhead bins
- Drivers who collide with trains on the train tracks
- Pedestrians or bicyclists who are injured because they are using railroad tracks for walking areas or other recreation
On January 4, 1987, an Amtrak train that was en route from D.C. to Boston collided with a Conrail train in Chase, Maryland. Sixteen people were killed and 174 were injured.
It was later determined that the cause of the accident was that the Conrail train engineer was impaired by marijuana at the time of the crash. He did not stop his train at a signal, and the train was not using automatic safety devices as required by the Federal Railroad Administration.
However, the vast majority of train accident injuries happen to people who are on the tracks, either because of an accident on the platform or driving through crossings.
6 common causes of train accidents
- Human error
- Equipment failure or defects
- Heavy or shifting cargo loads
- Signal or crossing failure
- Track failure
- Obstacles on train tracks
Who’s liable for a train accident?
Any transportation company that carries people or property from one location to another is called a common carrier. That means railroad companies like Amtrak and MARC are both common carriers, and they have a duty of care to keep passengers safe.
Other possible liable parties include:
- Track owner. Different sections of the track could be owned by different private companies or government entities. Whoever owns or controls the section of track where the accident occurred could be liable if there were any deficiencies on the track that contributed to the accident.
- Car or truck driver. If the crash was because the train collided with a vehicle on the tracks, the driver of the car could be liable.
- Manufacturer. Equipment failure could include issues with the engine, signals, or any other part of the train or tracks. If there was faulty equipment on the train you were in, the other train in a collision, a signal, or elsewhere, the manufacturer of the part or component could be liable for your injuries.
The Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA) for railroad workers
Typically, the benefits an employee who is injured at work can receive are through workers’ compensation, which is provided to almost every person who is employed by either a private company or a government agency.
But railroad workers are the exception. Instead, they must file a claim under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, or FELA.
The difference between workers’ compensation and FELA is that a workers’ comp claim is no-fault, meaning you don’t have to prove that someone negligently caused your injury. You only need to show that you were injured while engaged in tasks related to your job.
In contrast, if you’re a railroad employee who was injured at work, you need to file a FELA lawsuit and prove that the injury was the result of your employer’s negligence.
A railroad company can be found liable for a worker’s injury if it:
- Failed to provide proper safety training.
- Failed to provide adequate safety equipment.
- Required the worker to work longer hours than the regulations allow.
- Required the worker to perform under unreasonable time pressure.
- Failed to provide adequate employee supervision.
Determining negligence under Maryland law
Maryland follows the pure contributory negligence rule of fault. Therefore, if you had any fault for the accident, you can’t recover any damages from the other party in a lawsuit.
How could you be negligent as a train passenger?
It’s less likely that you are negligent if you have no control over the operation of a train and you’re in an accident. But if you’re a driver at a train crossing, you could be negligent in several ways.
For instance, if the flashing light is warning drivers that a train is about to pass, you should never try to “beat” the train. Your vision cannot accurately assess the train’s speed, and you put your own safety and the safety of others in danger if you think you can cross a train track before a visible train reaches your location.
Even if the train is speeding, the conductor isn’t paying attention, or there is some other fault on the part of the railroad, if you were on a train track after being warned that a train is coming, you likely bear some responsibility and you won’t be able to recover damages.
Damages for a Maryland train accident
“Damages” is the legal term for the amount of money you can recover to compensate you for your injuries or financial losses. The basis for personal injury law is that a plaintiff (the injured person) should be made whole—or be compensated so that they are in the same financial condition after the accident as they would have been if the accident had never happened.
If you were injured, you can recover costs for items that include:
- Medical expenses, including surgeries, hospital visits, doctor visits, medications, assistive devices, therapies, and any other item that costs money and is associated with your treatment.
- Pain and suffering, if the accident left you with emotional issues like anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other illnesses. Pain and suffering damages can also compensate accident victims for limb amputation, disfigurement, burns, and other permanent disabilities suffered from the accident.
- Lost wages and future earnings can be claimed if the injury caused you to take time off from work, or if you’re no longer able to work in the same capacity as you did prior to the accident.
- Property damage is also included in personal injury damages. If any of your property was lost or damaged, you can claim the amount required for repair or replacement.
- Punitive damages are awarded in cases where the defendant’s behavior was particularly malicious or egregious.
- Wrongful death, if you’ve lost a family member in a train accident.
5 tips to avoid a train crossing accident
Aside from a large train-related disaster (which is rare), a train crossing is the most dangerous interaction with trains and the most likely way to be injured. Fortunately, you can avoid a train accident at a crossing by following a few simple recommendations.
1. Stay clear of a moving train.
Most trains aren’t filled with passengers — they might be cargo or freight trains and could be carrying hazardous material like toxic chemicals, flammable gases, or fluids. There’s always a risk that something could happen that would cause chemical leakage. Even if you’re certain you’re too far away to be hit by a passing train, you should maintain enough distance to be safe from any kind of substance that might be leaking.
2. Don’t assume you know the train schedule.
You never know when a train is coming... even if you think you do.
There are lots of reasons why a train schedule might change. Weather, loading and personnel issues could all cause delays or changes in the normal schedule. Always take the same level of precautions when approaching or crossing tracks, even if you think the train has already passed.
3. Never try to “beat” the train.
There’s no comparison between the size and weight of a train versus your car. You won’t win at a game of “chicken” with a train. Ever.
Most cars can’t stop on a dime. A train, with all that weight behind it, definitely can’t stop quickly. By the time the conductor sees a car or person on the train tracks, it’s likely already too late to stop a moving train before a collision.
4. Don’t rely on visual distance indicators.
A locomotive can be 10 feet wide and 17 feet high. They’re streamlined, which gives the appearance of being farther away down the track than they actually are. If you hear or see a train, stay off the tracks until it has passed, even if it looks or sounds like it’s far away.
5. Avoid recreation on or near railroad tracks.
Railroad tracks aren’t where you should go for walking, biking, hiking, motorcycling, taking pictures or other activities.
Have questions? Find a Maryland train accident lawyer
If you’re involved in a train crash or derailment, it’s likely a newsworthy occurrence because it’s so unusual. Lawyers who see the event on the news might seek you out with offers to represent you in a lawsuit. This is not permitted and not ethical.
A lawyer may not solicit your business if you don’t have a pre-existing relationship.
Instead, you should find your own Maryland personal injury lawyer who specializes in train accident cases like yours.
Enjuris offers a variety of resources to help:
- Maryland lawyer directory
- How to find a personal injury lawyer
- Choosing a personal injury attorney – questions to ask
- Preparing to meet with a personal injury attorney
- How to talk to a lawyer
- Negotiating lawyers' fees
- When do you NOT need an attorney after an accident?