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The answer: It depends. There could be several factors that affect liability in a train crash.
On September 29, 2016, commuters left their homes and headed for work. Train #1614 on the Pascack Valley Line left the Spring Valley station in New York at 7:23 a.m. bound for Hoboken, New Jersey. At 8:45 a.m., the train entered the Hoboken Terminal, a major transportation hub for the New York metropolitan area. It was then that the train went over the bumper block and through the rail concourse, finally stopping just before the station’s waiting area. There were 114 injuries and 1 fatality.
Twenty years earlier, in 1996, 2 New Jersey Transit commuter trains crashed at what used to be Bergen Junction in Secaucus. That was also a morning rush hour collision, and there were 3 fatalities and 162 injuries. The fatalities were both trains’ engineers and 1 passenger.
Overall, train travel is exceedingly safe, despite these memorable stories. Nationally, there were more than 700 railroad-related deaths in 2014, but only 5 were the result of a train accident. The majority were people trespassing on train tracks.
New Jersey train travel
NJ Transit has 11 commuter rail lines and 3 light rails. Most NJ rail transportation provides service for commuters to New York City, Hoboken, and Newark. NJ Transit also operates rail service to Orange and Rockland counties in New York in partnership with New York’s Metro-North Railroad.
New Jersey commuter and light rail lines
NJ Transit light rail lines include:
- Hudson-Bergen: 24 stops, 20.6 miles. Runs along the Gold Coast from Bayonne to North Bergen, and stops at the Hoboken Terminal.
- Newark: 12 stops, 4.3 miles. Serves the Newark area, connects Newark Penn Station to North Newark and Bloomfield.
- River: 21 stops, 34 miles. Connects Trenton to Camden along the Delaware River.
NJ Transit commuter rail lines include:
- Atlantic City Line
- Bergen County Line
- Main Line
- Meadowlands Rail Line
- Montclair-Boonton Line
- Morris & Essex (Morristown Line, Gladstone Branch)
- North Jersey Coast Line
- Northeast Corridor Line
- Pascack Valley Line
- Raritan Valley Line
Amtrak service in New Jersey
Not all train travel is for commuters. Many people also prefer trains as a convenient and stress-free form of transportation for longer-distance travel between cities. Amtrak offers service from Newark, New Jersey to New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and connections along the East Coast.
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 and size of each locomotive.
- Derailments. A derailment happens when a train comes off the tracks. When one train car pulls others off the track, it could affect the entire train. A derailment could harm railroad workers, passengers, and even occupants of nearby buildings or pedestrians.
6 most 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 NJ Transit are both common carriers, and they have a duty of care to keep passengers safe.
What are a railroad company’s responsibilities to its passengers?
- To ensure that the train and tracks are maintained properly.
- To 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.
Other liable parties
- Track owner: Different sections of 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.
How you can avoid a train crossing accident
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 the train, you should maintain enough distance to be safe from any kind of substance that might be leaking.
You don’t know the train schedule (even if you think you do)!
Don’t assume you know exactly when the train will come. Even if you routinely cross tracks on your way to work or you can hear a train whistle from your home every day at a specific time and you’re “sure” you know when to expect it — you don’t. There are lots of reasons why a train schedule might change; weather, loading issues, personnel, etc., could all cause delays or changes. Always take the same level of precautions when approaching or crossing tracks, even if you think the train has already passed.
Don’t play chicken. YIELD to a moving train.
A train is heavy and large. Think of the size and weight of a train as compared to your car. No contest.
Consider the amount of time it takes your car to come to a full stop. If you’ve ever had to brake suddenly, you know that passenger cars, while very responsive, don’t stop on a dime. A train takes even more time to stop, in part because the engine has hundreds of thousands of additional pounds behind it. 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.
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.
Railroad tracks aren’t a recreational area.
Railroad tracks aren’t intended for walking, hiking, biking, motorcycling, photography, or other activities. Railroad fatalities often happen because people use train tracks for these kinds of purposes and they don’t see or hear a train approaching.
Railroad employee injuries
Almost every person in this country who’s employed by another person or business is covered under workers’ compensation insurance.
Workers’ compensation insurance is a system of benefits to compensate for medical treatment and lost wages for a person who’s injured while performing their job. 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 an 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, though, a FELA lawsuit requires the injured worker to show that the railroad worker was negligent and that their negligence caused your injury.
A railroad 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.
What to do after a New Jersey train accident injury
If you’re involved in a train accident, there are 3 legal questions that you need to ask before pursuing a claim:
- Does my claim fall under FELA (i.e. am I an employee of the railroad)?
- Can I file a personal injury lawsuit?
- Is the claim a wrongful death action (I am claiming on behalf of a family member who died in a New Jersey train accident)?
If you were injured and your injuries resulted in medical costs or lost wages, you’re entitled to make a claim.
Because of the size and shape of a train, it’s possible for a train to be involved in an accident — even a serious one — and most passengers won’t be injured. Or, you could suffer minor injuries like small bruises that don’t require medical treatment.
If you were a passenger on a train that was involved in an accident but you were not injured (or your injury was very minor and required no medical treatment), you cannot make a claim. You can’t recover damages unless you had an actual injury and that injury cost you money.
Damages from a New Jersey train accident
After a personal injury accident, you can seek damages for:
- 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 also compensate 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.
In a wrongful death case, you can recover expenses related to the deceased person’s medical expenses, funeral and burial costs, loss of wages, and sometimes punitive damages.
Liability issues, federal and state regulations, and other complex questions surrounding a train accident usually mean that you’ll need an experienced lawyer to handle your claim.
What if a lawyer comes to me after a train accident and offers to take my case?
Legal ethics prohibit a lawyer from soliciting your business if you don’t have a preexisting relationship. In all likelihood, a train accident will be newsworthy because it’s unusual. A lawyer might seek out people who were involved in the accident (either because a news outlet published your name, you were interviewed, or by receiving information from other involved individuals) and come to your home (or even the hospital) and offer their services.
This practice is not permitted. You shouldn’t retain the services of a lawyer who approaches you for business because they became aware that you were in an accident. For one thing, they’re already breaking the legal code of ethics, so that gives you one indicator that they’re not the most trustworthy.
Second, you should take time and find the lawyer who’s the best fit for you — which might not be the one who gives you an unsolicited call.
If you’re looking for a New Jersey train accident lawyer, you can begin with the Enjuris law firm directory. You can also use these helpful resources:
- 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?
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.