How passengers and railroad employees can recover damages following a train crash
Missouri once featured some of the most iconic passenger trains in America, including the Kansas City Southern Railway’s Southern Belle and the Illinois Central’s City of New Orleans.
The state no longer features as many passenger trains as it did in its heyday, but there are still quite a few miles of active track in Missouri.
The most popular passenger railroads in Missouri today include Amtrak, Bi-State Development Agency Railroad (MetroLink), Kansas City Streetcar Authority, and the Delmar Loop Trolley. The most popular excursion railroads include the Branson Scenic Railroad and the St. Louis Iron Mountain Railroad.
Train accident statistics
Trains are one of the safest modes of transportation, especially when compared to motor vehicles.
|Missouri train accidents (2016-2020)|
|Source: Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety Analysis|
Across the country, there were 1,606 train accidents in 2020, resulting in 6 fatalities. The year before, there were 1,988 accidents, resulting in 3 fatalities.
Common causes of train accidents
Although every accident is different, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which investigates most train accidents, identifies the most common causes of train accidents as follows:
- Track, roadbed, and structure problems
- Signal and communication errors
- Train operation errors (human factors)
- Mechanical and electrical failures
When a train accident happens, it generally takes one of the following forms:
- A pedestrian hit by a train. Most train-related fatalities are the result of a pedestrian being killed while crossing a train track.
- A collision with a motor vehicle. Some train accidents happen when motor vehicle drivers ignore crossing arms and warning lights.
- A train-on-train collision. Collisions between trains are rare but generally catastrophic.
- A derailment. Derailments are actually fairly common, but the vast majority of train derailments don’t result in injuries.
Train number 32, which was carrying 190 passengers, including a group of boy scouts, had stopped to take on water.
The engineer on train number 4 missed the signals regarding the presence of train number 32 in front of him.
When the trains collided, a number of passenger cars rolled down the 50-foot embankment and into Glaize Creek. Tragically, 34 passengers died in the accident and 150 were seriously injured, making this the worst train wreck in Missouri history.
How does an injured train passenger recover damages in Missouri?
You can file a civil lawsuit if you’re injured in a train accident. However, to recover damages, you’ll need to prove that someone else was responsible for the accident.
In most cases, establishing responsibility means proving that some person or entity was negligent.
In Missouri, negligence is established by proving the following 4 elements:
- Duty. The injured passenger must prove that the defendant owed them a duty of care. In most cases, the duty of care owed is that of a reasonable person. In other words, a person must exercise a reasonable degree of care under the circumstances. However, train operators are considered “common carriers,” and therefore must exercise the “highest degree of care.”
- Breach. The injured passenger must prove that the defendant breached the duty of care.
- Causation. The injured passenger must prove that their injury was caused by the defendant’s breach.
- Damages. The injured passenger must prove that they actually suffered financial harm.
If a loved one is killed in a train accident, certain family members may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit to recover damages associated with the loss. A wrongful death lawsuit is similar to a negligence lawsuit in the sense that the person bringing the lawsuit still has to prove negligence.
Sherry, Scott’s wife, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway following the crash. The lawsuit alleged that the railroad crossing did not have safe sight distance, lights, or gates.
What’s more, the lawsuit alleged that the train crew should have been able to see Scott’s vehicle approaching while it was a half-mile away because the tracks and train sat much higher on the road.
After deliberating for just over 2 hours, a jury returned a $20 million verdict in favor of Sherry.
Who can be held responsible for a train accident?
It takes many different parties to operate a train. As a result, it can be difficult to determine who is responsible for a train accident. Train accident investigations undertaken by the FRA often take years to reach a conclusion.
Keeping that in mind, here are some potentially responsible parties:
- The railroad company. Train operators and others who work for a train company are responsible for keeping passengers safe. If a railroad company employee fails to do so, the railroad company can be sued for negligence under the doctrine of respondeat superior.
- Railroad employees. A railroad employee may be personally liable for a crash if the actions that caused the crash were intentional or criminal.
- The track owner. Different sections of the track could be owned by different companies or government entities. If an accident occurs because of a dangerous condition present on the track, the owner of that section might be liable.
- The manufacturer of the train or track. If the accident occurred because of a defective train or track component, the manufacturer may be liable.
- Motor vehicle driver or pedestrian. If the accident was caused by a driver or pedestrian entering the path of an oncoming train, the driver or pedestrian may be liable.
How does an injured railroad employee recover damages in Missouri?
If a railroad employee is injured in a train or railroad accident that was caused by their employer or a colleague, the railroad employee can’t file a personal injury lawsuit. Instead, the railroad employee MUST file a Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) claim.
FELA stands in place of workers’ compensation for railroad employees, but there are some major differences that railroad employees should know about:
- FELA is fault-based, meaning injured railroad employees must prove that their employer was negligent to recover damages
- The amount of compensation a railroad employee can recover under FELA is not capped
- Injured railroad employees can recover non-economic damages like pain and suffering under FELA
Damages for a Missouri train accident
If you’re injured in a train accident, you can recover the following types of damages:
- Economic damages represent the monetary losses caused by your accident (e.g., medical expenses, lost wages, property damage).
- Non-economic damages represent the non-monetary losses caused by your accident (e.g., pain and suffering, loss of consortium).
- Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant and are only available if the plaintiff can prove that they were injured intentionally or as a result of a “deliberate and flagrant disregard for the safety of others.”
Statute of limitations for Missouri train accident lawsuits
You only have a certain amount of time to file a personal injury lawsuit following a train accident. This time limit is called the statute of limitations.
In Missouri, you have 5 years from the date of the accident to file a lawsuit in most cases. If you’re filing a wrongful death lawsuit, you only have 3 years.
Failing to file a lawsuit within the statute of limitations results in your claim being forever barred.
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