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Train travel is safer than riding in a car, but you should know what to do if you’re injured
Michigan has an extensive rail system with more than 3,600 miles of rails operated by 29 railroads. This includes both trains that transport people and freight carriers.
The Michigan Department of Transportation oversees 3 separate passenger rail routes that are operated by Amtrak and serve 22 stations. There are a few regional rail links that remain in the planning process. Presently, Michigan Services Amtrak passenger routes connect Chicago with Grand Rapids, Port Huron, and Detroit.
The Detroit People Mover is a passenger rail with stations at Michigan Ave., Cadillac Center, Millender Center, Fort/Cass, Times Square, Greektown, Financial District, Grand Circus Park, Bricktown, Joe Louis Arena, Broadway, Renaissance Center and Cobo Center.
While train travel in Michigan is statistically quite safe and injuries are rare, people can be injured in a train accident in a few different ways:
- As a passenger, either on the train or at the platform
- As the employee of a railroad or train station
- As a driver, pedestrian, or bicyclist who is in a collision with a train at a crossing
Group seeks to reduce pedestrian train deaths
According to an article in the Great Lakes Echo, more than 10 pedestrians were struck and killed by Michigan trains from 2019-2021.
Federal Railroad Administration reports include accidents like the death of a 17-year-old in Davison who tripped on the tracks and was struck by an oncoming train when he fell.
One official said that half of the people struck by trains are killed. There were 8 people struck by trains in Michigan in 2018, 5 of whom died. In 2020, 4 people were killed after being struck by trains, and 7 were injured.
Michigan Operation Lifesaver, which is the nonprofit that aims to reduce train-track deaths, intends to work toward better safety enforcement and public education.
Types of railroad accidents
There are 4 main types of train crashes and train-related accidents:
- Pedestrian hit by a train. The majority of train-related fatalities involve a person being killed as they walk along or cross a train track in the path of an oncoming train.
- Train crashes with cars. It’s never a good idea for a driver to try to “beat” a train across the tracks. Crashes happen when drivers underestimate the speed of an oncoming train (even when signals are flashing) or if a driver is stopped on tracks while waiting for a traffic light to change or in a line of traffic.
- Train collisions. Trains that collide with each other are rare, but when it does happen it can have catastrophic consequences because of the sheer speed, velocity and size of each locomotive.
- Derailments. A derailment happens when a train comes off the tracks. When 1 train car pulls others off the track, it could affect the entire train. A derailment could cause harm to railroad workers, passengers, and even occupants of nearby buildings or pedestrians.
Train accidents as a toxic tort
There’s another way you could be injured by a train accident, even if you’re not on the train or near one.
A “toxic tort” is when the air, water, or soil is contaminated as a result of a release or leak of hazardous materials. If there’s a freight train that is involved in a crash or derailment, it could release chemicals into the air or nearby surroundings that present a health risk to people in the immediate area. It could also affect the environment in a way that reduces the value of your property.
Like any other personal injury claim, you would need to prove that your injury is the direct result of the train accident. You would then need to prove that a specific defendant (or defendants) was negligent in causing the crash or leak.
This could be a complicated legal matter, but plaintiffs with skilled representation can have success in receiving damages for chemical exposure injuries or toxic torts related to their property values.
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
“Human error” doesn’t always mean the train operator. Sometimes, the human is a driver or pedestrian at a crossing. It could even be a passenger who leaves luggage or another object in the aisle, allowing for it to slide with the motion of the train or become a tripping hazard. Nearly every train accident injury caused by human error was preventable.
Common carrier responsibility to passengers
A railroad is responsible for its passengers’ safety. It is required to:
- Ensure that the train and tracks are maintained properly, and
- Ensure that employees like conductors and engineers have proper training and experience to manage a train and its passengers.
The train operator is either a private company or a public agency. However, even a private company like Amtrak is subject to stringent state and federal safety regulations.
Among these federal regulations are limits on the number of hours a train engineer or operator may work without a break. It’s crucial that train personnel get adequate sleep between shifts in order to perform at their best capacity when driving the train. However, fatigue is still a big problem in the train industry.
In some circumstances, a train driver is required to turn a train around and return it to a starting point for a new run before the driver can take a break — and that can mean a very long shift. And, not every train operator follows the rules. Train engineers do occasionally fall asleep on the job.
Railroad employee injuries
Workers’ compensation is a system of benefits to compensate injured workers for medical treatment and lost wages if they are hurt while performing their job or diagnosed with an occupational illness. When a person covered under workers’ compensation is injured at work, they don’t need to prove (or even claim) fault or negligence. You only need the injury to have happened during the course of your job.
Railroad employees are the exception.
Railroad employees are protected by the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) instead of workers’ compensation.
If you’re a railroad employee who has been hurt on the job, you’d file a lawsuit under FELA. Unlike a workers’ compensation claim, a FELA lawsuit requires the injured railroad worker to show that the railroad company was negligent and that their negligence caused your injury.
A railroad company can be found liable for a worker’s injury if the railroad:
- 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.
How Michigan negligence standards affect a personal injury lawsuit
As a plaintiff with a portion of fault, your damage recovery would be reduced according to your allocation of fault.
In other words, say the court determines that a defendant owes you $100,000 to cover costs for your injuries. If you were 20% liable, the court would reduce that award by 20% and you’d receive $80,000 in damages.
In Michigan, if you’re 51% or more at fault for an accident, you may not claim damages.
When does this matter for a train accident?
If you’re the passenger on a train that crashes, you likely are not at fault because you have no control over the train.
But if you’re a driver who’s injured because you were hit by a train at a railroad crossing, it’s likely that you were more than 50% liable for the accident.
Federal regulators, insurance adjusters, and lawyers will likely review the evidence to determine who, including the plaintiff, caused the train accident that resulted in your injury.
How to receive compensation for a Michigan train accident injury
If you were injured in a train accident, you could recover costs by filing a lawsuit against the negligent party.
The crucial part is knowing who the negligent party is, and that’s where your lawyer could be most important. There could be several parties in a train accident, particularly if it resulted in severe injuries.
A plaintiff (the injured person) who is injured as a result of someone else’s negligence can recover damages. Damages are the financial costs associated with the injury.
You could claim damages that include:
- Medical treatment. A personal injury award almost always includes the cost of medical care, both to repay what you’ve already spent on care and to pay for estimated future treatment. Your lawyer will work with experts like doctors, accountants and actuaries to determine what your future medical needs will entail and what they’re likely to cost. Medical treatment costs can include doctor and hospital visits, prescription medication, assistive devices, rehabilitative therapies, and any other costs related to your physical recovery.
- Lost income. You can also claim salary and wages as a loss from an accident. This might include the time you had to take off from work following your injury, a reduction in wages if you had to return to a different job than the one you had before the accident, and loss of earning capacity. Loss of earning capacity is the difference between what you would’ve earned for the remainder of your lifetime and what you will actually earn because of the accident.
- Emotional distress. Emotional distress damages compensate a plaintiff for the non-physical effects of an injury. This might include fear, anxiety, sleep disturbances, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other psychological conditions that arise following trauma or serious injury.
- Loss of enjoyment. Life is about more than the necessities. You might be able to eat, sleep, and function, but can you enjoy your time? If you were an athlete disabled in an accident or a pianist who effectively lost the use of your hands, you might be suffering because you’ve lost a substantial amount of enjoyment in your life. Anyone who has been injured to the extent that they lose some level of capacity to do the things they previously enjoyed—even if it’s walking your dog or playing with your kids—could be eligible for a damage award for loss of enjoyment.
- Loss of consortium. If a loved one was in an accident and lost the ability to provide love, affection, companionship, comfort, or even the ability to participate in household responsibilities and child-rearing, you might have a loss of consortium claim.
In Michigan, you can file a personal injury lawsuit up to 3 years from the date of the accident.
A knowledgeable lawyer can advise you on when, where, and how to file a lawsuit. If you’re filing a lawsuit on behalf of a loved one who was killed in a Michigan train accident, your lawyer can assist with a wrongful death claim.
The most important thing after a train accident is to recover physically and get the medical treatment you need. The Enjuris law firm directory can help with the next step: finding the Michigan personal injury attorney who can help you receive the financial compensation to pay your bills and cover your expenses.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.