Learn about train accidents and personal injury lawsuits involving railroad companies
Once boasting more than 5,000 miles of rails in the 1920's, Montana's railroad network now consists of just over 3,000 miles. Though this might seem like a significant reduction, it's actually well under the 50% loss rate experienced by most other states.
Fortunately, train accidents are rare compared to car accidents. According to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), there were 1,666 train accidents in 2018. (In comparison, there were nearly 50,000 car accidents in Montana alone in 2018.)
What's more, railroad-related accidents in Montana have decreased 55% over the last 10 years. During this same period, the number of railroad employees injured on the job has decreased 63%.
Nevertheless, train accidents do happen. And when they do, they can be devastating.
So let's answer some questions you might have if you're involved in a train accident in Montana.
Types of train accidents
When we think about “train accidents,” we generally think about the following types of accidents:
- Train and car collisions
- Collisions between trains
- Pedestrians suicides
- Bridge or platform collapses
While these are the most common types of train accidents, there are other incidents involving trains that might lead to personal injury lawsuits. For example, a court recently determined that Amtrak could be held liable for damages caused when an Amtrak employee raped a passenger as the train traveled through northeastern Montana.
In another example, a freight train traveling through Culberston, Montana spilled 35,000 gallons of crude oil. Such spills can pollute groundwater and lead to explosions which may injure nearby people.
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 and their property. In some cases, the duty owed is heightened and becomes a duty to use the “highest degree of care.”
If the 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 liable:
- The railroad company
- The train operator
- The train dispatcher
- The manufacturer of the train, train component, or railroad track
- A government agency that owns or operates the railroad
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.
What damages are recoverable?
Railroad accidents are no different than car accidents in terms of what types of damages can be recovered. In Montana, a person injured in a train accident can recover the following:
- Past and future medical expenses
- Lost wages
- Property damage
As is the case with car accidents, punitive damages aren't recoverable against government agencies. What's more, damages in Montana are capped in certain instances.
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 employee is injured on the job. FELA replaces workers' compensation for railroad employees.
To put it another way, a railroad employee can't file a workers' compensation claim if they're injured at work (like most employees), but instead must file a claim under FELA.
So what's the difference between a FELA claim and a workers' compensation claim?
The biggest difference is that FELA is a fault-based system. This means that a railroad employee must prove that their employer was negligent in order to recover damages. On the other hand, when filing a workers' compensation claim, an employee only needs to prove that they were injured on the job. Who's fault it was isn't relevant.
The second major difference is that the employee can potentially recover more damages under FELA. While workers' compensation benefits are typically capped at a certain amount, there are no damage caps under FELA.
Importantly, FELA requires railroad companies to meet certain standards. If an injured worker can prove that their company failed to meet these standards, this might provide a basis for recovery. Some of the most significant 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
Tips to prevent train accidents in Montana
In January 2019, a Montana resident was killed when his vehicle collided with a train at the Heeb Road crossing in Belgrade, Montana. The incident prompted the Montana Rail Link to speak out about train safety.
Ross Lane, chief communications officer for Montana Rail Link, reminded people that:
“By the time the crew [sees] a person or a vehicle disabled on the tracks or on the tracks in some other way, they can initiate an emergency braking application and sound the whistle, but often times it [will] take more than a mile for a train to come to a complete stop.”
The Montana Rail Link asks people to keep the following points in mind to help avoid a preventable train accident:
- Taking photos on train tracks can be deadly and is illegal.
- Only cross train tracks at a designated crossing.
- Never hunt, fish, or jump from trestles; there's only enough clearance on the tracks for the train to pass.
- Any time is train time; trains don't follow set schedules.
- Slow down, look, and listen.
Train accident litigation can be particularly complex. If you or a loved one has been involved in a train accident, consider using our free online directory to contact an experienced Montana attorney.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.