The nuts and bolts of train accidents and lawsuits involving railroad companies in the Buckeye State
Traveling by rail conjures up images of adventurous travelers peering through glass-domed observation cars, eating exceptional cuisine, and capping off the evening with cocktails and good conversation in the bar car.
In Ohio, there are a number of scenic train rides that will come close to meeting these expectations, including the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad and the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway.
Fortunately for adventurous travelers, trains are very safe compared to other modes of transportation. In 2018, there were 881 railroad-related deaths. To put this in perspective, 36,750 people were killed in car accidents in 2018.
Nevertheless, accidents happen.
In this article, we’ll look at the main causes of train accidents and what to do if you’re injured in a train accident in Ohio, whether you’re a railroad employee or passenger.
Types of train accidents
There are 4 main types of train crashes:
- Pedestrian hit by a train. Most train accidents are the result of pedestrians walking into the path of an oncoming train (whether accidentally or intentionally).
- Train crashes with cars. Most of us can recall impatiently waiting for a train to pass while sitting in a car. But sometimes, a driver thinks they can “beat” the train even when warning signals are flashing, resulting in a tragic collision. In other situations, the warning signals may not be working and the driver might attempt to cross the tracks when an unseen train is coming.
- Train collisions. It isn’t often that a train collides with another train, but it does happen.
- Derailments. A derailment occurs when a train comes off the tracks. Depending on the speed and location of the train, passengers and nearby motorists who were in the wrong place at the wrong time can be seriously hurt.
In 2018, a truck driver collided with a train while crossing the tracks at the intersection of Route 88 and Maple Glenn Road. The crash caused the truck to spill 40,000 pounds of hydrochloric acid solution, which forced the residents of nearby homes to evacuate the area.
The truck driver, who allegedly suffered serious physical and psychological injuries, sued the railroad company and the United States Department of Transportation, arguing that the crossing lacked adequate warnings and safety measures.
The lawsuit has not yet been resolved.
Common causes of train accidents
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) investigates all train accidents that result in fatalities or serious injuries. According to the FRA, the 6 most common causes of train accidents are:
- Human error
- Equipment failure or defect
- Heavy or shifting cargo loads
- Signal or crossing failure
- Track failure (including roadbed issues)
- Obstacles on train tracks
Who is 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 or their property. If this duty is breached and an accident occurs because of the breach, the injured party can sue for negligence.
In addition to the general duties owed by railroad companies and employees, there are a number of specific statutory requirements that railroad companies and employees must adhere to.
For example, under Ohio Revised Code 4955.33, railroad companies are required to erect “crossbuck signing” that meets certain requirements where the railroad crosses a public road.
If a railroad company or employee fails to comply with applicable statutory requirements, they may be liable for injuries that occur as a result.
Depending on the nature of the accident, one or more of the following parties may be responsible:
- The railroad company
- The train operator
- The manufacturer of the train or train components
- A government entity that owns or operates the railroad
In 1876, a train carrying 159 passengers was crossing a railroad bridge over a gorge of the Ashtabula River in Ashtabula, Ohio, when the 11-year-old bridge collapsed.
As the train fell into the ice-cold water, oil lamps and coal heating stoves ignited, setting the railcars on fire. Of the 159 passengers and crew, 98 were killed and many more were injured.
A subsequent investigation found that a faulty design caused the bridge to collapse. The 2 bridge designers committed suicide soon after the accident.
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.
Just as railroad companies and their employees owe passengers and bystanders a duty to use reasonable care to avoid causing injury, other drivers and pedestrians owe a duty to use the same reasonable care.
As a result, the estate of a driver who ignores flashing warning lights or a pedestrian who commits suicide by stepping out onto the tracks can be held liable for any damages caused as a result of the accident.
If the driver or pedestrian survives, they may also face criminal penalties. For example, the Ohio truck driver in the example above who drove into the path of an oncoming train faced felony charges for causing and risking a catastrophe.
What damages are recoverable?
Traveling by train is one of the safest ways to travel. But when accidents occur, they are often catastrophic.
Common train accident injuries include:
Ohio awards the following damages in train accident cases:
- Medical expenses. Medical expenses include surgeries, hospital visits, medications, physical therapy, and any other item that costs money and is associated with your treatment.
- Pain and suffering. Pain and suffering is a legal term that refers to the physical and emotional stress caused by an injury.
- Lost wages. If you’re injured, you may have to miss work or transition to a lower-paying job. Ohio allows you to recover the lost wages caused by a train accident.
- Property damage. If any of your property was lost or damaged, you can claim the amount required for repair or replacement.
- Punitive damages. Punitive damages may be awarded in cases where the defendant’s behavior was particularly egregious.
Wrongful death damages for fatal train wrecks
The unfortunate reality is that train accidents often result in death.
If a loved one is killed in a train accident, certain family members (the surviving spouse, any surviving children, and the surviving parents) can recover damages associated with the loss (things like mental anguish and loss of support based on the compensation the deceased would have earned if they had lived) by filing a wrongful death lawsuit.
Compensation claims by injured railroad workers
The Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) provides a system of legal recovery for railroad employees and their families when a railroad worker is injured on the job in Ohio. FELA replaces workers’ compensation for railroad employees.
In other words, a railroad employee can’t file a workers’ compensation claim (like most employees) but instead has to file a claim under FELA.
There are 3 major differences between FELA claims and workers’ compensation claims:
- FELA is a fault-based system. This means that a railroad employee seeking to recover damages under FELA must prove that their employer was negligent in order to recover damages. Workers’ compensation, on the other hand, is a no-fault system — meaning injured workers in other professions don’t have to take the extra step of proving fault. This is a downside, as it can make it harder for injured railroad workers to obtain compensation for a work-related injury.
- Injured railroad employees can recover more money under FELA. While workers’ compensation is typically capped at a certain amount, there are no damage limits under FELA. What’s more, workers can receive pain and suffering damages under FELA; whereas, workers typically can’t receive pain and suffering damages under Ohio’s workers’ compensation laws.
- The statute of limitations for FELA is 3 years. The statute of limitations, which is the time a worker has to file a claim following the injury, for workers’ compensation claims is only one year in the vast majority of cases. So injured railroad workers have more time to file a claim.
FELA also requires railroad companies to meet certain workplace standards. Failing to meet any of these standards provides a basis for recovery by the injured employee. Some of these 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
What to do after a train accident in Ohio
Though the injuries may be similar, train accidents are very different from car accidents. If you or a loved one were involved in a train wreck, it’s vital you find a lawyer with experience litigating train accident cases to navigate the complex state and federal regulations that may be involved.
You can search for an experienced attorney using the free Enjuris Lawyer Directory. Once you identify an attorney, set up an initial consultation (most initial consultations are free).
Remember, you’re not just meeting with an attorney, you’re trying to determine if the attorney is right for you and your case.