What you should know about train accidents and lawsuits involving railroad companies
On May 12, 2015, an Amtrak Northeast Regional train was traveling through Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As the train approached a sharp curve, the driver failed to slow down.
The train took the 50 mph curve at 106 mph and derailed. Of the 243 people on board, 200 were injured and 8 were killed.
“I got thrown like a penny,” said one passenger who weighed 250 pounds. “That’s how violent this was.”
More than 125 civil cases were filed against Amtrak by passengers and family members. Amtrak admitted fault and reached a $265 million settlement.
Here at Enjuris, we hope you never have to experience anything like the Philadelphia Amtrak crash. However, if the unthinkable happens and you’re involved in a train accident, we want to make sure you have all the information you need.
Causes of train accidents
The most common causes of train accidents can be grouped into 5 categories:
- Human factors
- Track and structures
- Equipment failure
- Signal and train control
According to the United States Department of Transportation, human factors (such as failing to slow down when approaching a curve) and track issues (such as broken rails) cause the most train accidents.
The majority of train-related fatalities involve a person being killed as they cross a train track in the path of an oncoming train. This type of accident may be the result of a suicide or a defective traffic signal.
Who can be held responsible for a train accident?
Railroad companies and their employees owe passengers and bystanders a duty to use the utmost care to avoid causing injury to them or their property.
In addition, railroad equipment manufacturers owe a duty of reasonable care to anyone who might use or be impacted by their products.
If either of these duties 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 responsible:
- The railroad company
- The train operator
- The manufacturer of the train or train components
- A government entity 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.
Just as railroad companies and manufacturers owe a duty of care, other drivers and pedestrians owe a duty of care. As a result, a driver who ignores a train crossing warning light and causes an accident or a pedestrian who steps in front of a train can be held personally liable for any damages caused by the ensuing accident.
If the person who caused the accident was killed in the accident, the plaintiff can file a lawsuit against the deceased’s estate. On the other hand, if an innocent person was killed in a train accident, certain members of their family can recover damages from the at-fault party by filing a wrongful death lawsuit.
What damages are recoverable in Pennsylvania?
Railroad accidents are no different than car accidents in terms of what damages can be recovered. In Pennsylvania, a person injured in a train accident can recover the following:
- Past and future medical costs
- Lost wages
- Property damage
- Pain and suffering (physical and mental)
- Loss of consortium
- Wrongful death damages
Federal law caps the total damages that can be recovered in a single train accident at $295 million. The amount was increased from $200 million following the Philadelphia Amtrak crash. The original law was passed by congress in 1997 as part of a compromise to bail out the ailing railroad industry.
If you were injured in a train accident, it’s important that you keep a journal detailing the impact of the accident on your day-to-day life, as well as copies of your medical bills related to the accident. These records will come in handy when it comes time to support your claim for damages.
Claims for injured railroad workers
The Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) provides a special 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.
In other words, a railroad employee cannot file a workers’ compensation claim (like most employees), but instead has to file a claim under FELA.
There are some major differences between FELA claims and workers’ compensation claims. The biggest difference is that FELA is a fault-based system. This means that a railroad employee seeking to recover damages under FELA must prove that the employer was negligent to recover damages. Workers’ compensation, on the other hand, is a no-fault system.
The second major difference is that 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. In addition, injured railroad workers can receive damages for pain and suffering, unlike injured employees who file a workers’ comp claim.
FELA also requires railroad companies to meet certain standards. The failure to meet these standards provides a basis for recovery. 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
Infamous train accidents in Pennsylvania
The Philadelphia Amtrak accident garnered national attention, but it’s not the only train accident to occur in Pennsylvania. Here are the 5 most infamous train accidents in Pennsylvania:
- The Great Train Wreck of 1856. Tragically, a train dubbed the “Picnic Special” was taking school children to a picnic when a boiler exploded. It’s believed that 60 people were killed in the accident, most of them children. The crash happened in Whitemarsh Township, Pennsylvania, between Camp Hill Station and Fort Washington Station.
- Lochiel Train Crash of 1905. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s Cleveland and Cincinnati Express train was carrying 168 passengers when it came upon an eastbound freight train that had buckled due to a broken air hose. Traveling at 60 mph, the Pennsylvania Railroad train was unable to stop in time. Upon impact with the eastbound freight train, 50,000 pounds of blaster powder ignited. The accident killed 23 people.
- Frankford Junction Crash of 1943. Shortly after a train passed through the North Philadelphia station, an axle snapped. A total of 79 passengers were killed when the train was forced off the tracks, and 117 others were injured.
- The Baseball Special Crash of 1962. On July 28, 1962, a Pennsylvania Railroad train left Harrisburg headed for Philadelphia to see the Philadelphia Phillies play the Pittsburgh Pirates. The train was carrying semi-professional baseball players and their parents. On the way, the train derailed and 3 cars wound up in the Susquehanna River. A total of 19 people died and 119 were injured.
- Market-Frankford Crash of 1990. A mechanical failure caused a Philadelphia rapid-transit subway train to derail. The accident killed 3 people and injured 150 others. A subsequent investigation found that the driver had cocaine in his system at the time of the accident.
Steps to take after a Pennsylvania train accident
If you’ve been injured in a train accident, the most important thing you can do is seek medical treatment. Even if you don’t think your injuries are severe, it’s important to rule out internal injuries that don’t show symptoms for days or even weeks after the injury is sustained. What’s more, visiting the doctor will help prevent the insurance company or defendant from arguing that you weren’t really injured.
Once you’re safe, you should:
- Take photographs of the scene and any visible injuries
- Write down the names and phone numbers of any witnesses
- Keep track of all the medical treatment you receive
- Preserve any evidence you may have recovered at the scene
In addition, you should strongly consider reaching out to an attorney who has experience with train accident cases. Our free online directory can help.