Find out how to recover damages following a train wreck in the Beaver State
Oregon’s first railroad dates all the way back to 1861, when the Oregon Portage Company built a 5-mile-long railroad to replace a mule-and-wagon road. In 1862, the Oregon Portage Company acquired the 1st steam locomotive to operate in the Pacific Northwest.
Oregon’s railroads and trains look a lot different today. There are 2,500 miles of active track, mostly traversed by the Union Pacific and BNSF Railway.
Traveling by train is much safer than traveling by car, but accidents still happen. In this article, we’ll take a look at train accidents in Oregon, including who can be held responsible and what steps passengers and railroad employees should take if they're injured in a train wreck.
Oregon train accident statistics
There are roughly 93 train accidents in Oregon every year. Although there are a handful of fatalities each year, almost all of the fatalities are trespassers killed while standing on or crossing train tracks.
|Oregon train accidents (2016-2021)|
|Source: Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety Analysis|
The 3 worst train crashes in Oregon history
Due in large part to Oregon's rugged topography and routes linking Seattle and Portland with California, train travel has been popular in the Beaver State for more than a century.
During that time, the state has seen a number of horrific train crashes. Here are the 3 of the most notorious:
• The 2016 Union Pacific oil train fire. On June 3, 2016, a Union Pacific train carrying 3 million gallons of oil derailed as it passed the town of Mosier, Oregon. When the train derailed, the oil ignited, causing a fire that took more than 14 hours to extinguish.
Although no one was killed in the wreck, toxic smoke and ash contaminated the town, and oil spilled into the Columbia River.
• The 1890 Lake Labish Horror. On November 12, 1890, a Southern Pacific passenger train was crossing a wooden trestle bridge over Lake Labish near Salem, Oregon, when the bridge collapsed due to weathered timbers.
Five people were killed in the wreck and 125 were injured. On a positive note, the accident led to a new law requiring railroad bridges to be inspected 2 times per year.
• The 2017 Portland-bound Amtrak crash. An Amtrak train heading from Seattle to Portland derailed near Dupont, Washington, while traveling 80 mph. The train plunged off an overpass and landed on I-5 during rush hour.
Three passengers died in the crash, and more than 70 passengers were sent to the hospital.
A subsequent investigation found that the train’s engineer, Steven Brown, failed to slow the train while approaching the curve because he mistakenly believed he was at milepost 17, not milepost 18.
Bonus train accident
Although it was not technically a train crash, 1 of the most notorious Oregon train incidents occurred on a MAX Light Rail in Portland.
On May 26, 2017, passenger Jeremy Joseph Christian fatally stabbed 2 fellow passengers, Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, and injured a third, Micah David-Cole Fletcher, after he was confronted for shouting racist slurs at 2 Black teenagers.
Multnomah County jurors convicted Jeremy of murder in the 1st degree, attempted murder in the 1st degree, assault in the 1st degree, assault in the 2nd degree, intimidation in the 2nd degree, unlawful use of a weapon and menacing.
Following the conviction, 2 wrongful death lawsuits were filed by the families of the deceased. The lawsuits, which sought $20 million, were filed against TriMet and the city of Portland for failing to arrest and ban Jeremy from the transit system following earlier reports that he was harassing passengers.
Who can be held responsible for a train accident?
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) investigates most train accidents. These investigations often take months or even years to complete.
In other words, it’s not always easy to figure out who is responsible for a train accident.
Potentially responsible parties include:
• The railroad company. Railroad employees 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 train wreck if the actions that caused the wreck were intentional or criminal.
• The track owner. Different sections of a 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 may 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 train passenger recover damages in Oregon?
To recover damages after a train accident, an injured passenger needs to prove that someone else was responsible for the accident.
Most train accident lawsuits are based on negligence.
To establish negligence in Oregon, you need to prove the following 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 their 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 harm.
Although most train accident lawsuits are based on crashes, there are other ways a passenger can be injured on a train. One of the most common examples is a passenger who slips on a foreign substance.
Oregon law allows train operators to be held liable for passenger injuries caused by a foreign substance on the floor if the train operator knows the substance is on the floor and fails to use reasonable care to remove it or if the foreign substance has been there so long that the train operator, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have discovered and removed it.
Types of damages available in an Oregon train crash
Oregon allows train accident survivors to recover 3 types of damages:
- Economic damages represent the monetary losses caused by an accident (medical expenses, lost wages, property damage).
- Non-economic damages represent the non-monetary losses caused by an accident (pain and suffering, loss of consortium).
- Punitive damages are intended to punish a defendant and are typically only available if the defendant acted willfully.
Wrongful death lawsuits and fatal train crashes
In the unlikely event that a loved one is killed in a train accident, the personal representative of the deceased person’s estate can file a wrongful death lawsuit.
The purpose of a wrongful death lawsuit is to compensate surviving family members (e.g., spouse, children, parents) for the emotional and financial loss caused by the deceased’s death.
Damages available in a wrongful death lawsuit include:
- Medical expenses
- Funeral and burial expenses
- Lost wages and income that the deceased would have likely earned if death had not occurred
- Loss of care, companionship and other intangible benefits
To receive compensation, the personal representative must prove that the defendant’s negligence or wrongful act caused the accident (just as the deceased would have to prove if they had survived the accident).
How does an injured railroad employee recover damages in Oregon?
If a railroad employee is injured in a train or railroad accident that was caused by their employer or a colleague, the railroad employee MUST file a Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) claim in lieu of a personal injury lawsuit or workers’ compensation 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.
Statute of limitations for Oregon train injury claims
Oregon limits the amount of time a plaintiff has to file a lawsuit based on a train accident. This time limitation is called the statute of limitations.
In most cases, an injured passenger has 2 years from the date of the accident to file a lawsuit.
When it comes to wrongful death lawsuits, a personal representative has 3 years from the death of the decedent to file a lawsuit.
Finally, FELA claims have a 3-year statute of limitations.
If the lawsuit or claim is not filed within the statute of limitations, the plaintiff will be forever barred from filing the lawsuit or claim.
Are you ready to talk to a train accident attorney about your potential lawsuit? You can find an experienced train accident attorney in Oregon using our free online directory.