What railroad employees, passengers, and others impacted by a train accident should know before filing a lawsuit
Traveling by train is one of the safest ways to travel in South Carolina, but high-profile train crashes in the Palmetto State have shown that your safety is not guaranteed.
When train accidents happen, injured passengers and employees may be able to recover damages. However, there are a number of things to consider before filing a claim.
Let’s take a closer look.
What trains are active in South Carolina?
South Carolina boasted more than 4,000 miles of active rail during its peak in the 19th century. Although rail travel has become less popular since then, South Carolina’s rail network still consists of almost 2,300 miles of active rail.
The most common types of trains that still operate in South Carolina include:
- Freight trains. Freight trains transport goods (rather than people). A freight train generally consists of a group of freight cars hauled by a locomotive. In South Carolina, there are roughly a dozen freight lines in operation, including CSX Transportation (CSXT) and the Port Terminal Railroad of South Carolina (PTR).
- Passenger trains. Passenger trains transport people (rather than goods). The few remaining passenger trains in South Carolina are operated by the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak).
- Scenic trains. Scenic trains offer leisurely tours of sights such as mountain scenery and historic areas. The South Carolina Railroad Museum in Winnsboro operates a scenic train ride. Additionally, the Lancaster and Chester Railway (a freight train) offers limited luxury charters.
How common are train accidents?
Statistically, traveling by rail is one of the safest ways to travel.
Over a recent 10-year period in South Carolina, there were 193 train accidents. Those accidents resulted in 341 injuries and only 9 deaths.
Much more dangerous than being a passenger on a train is crossing a train track on foot or in a vehicle. Consider the following statistics:
|Rail incidents and public and private crossings (2019)
How do train accidents happen?
The Federal Railroad Association (FRA) has identified the most common causes of train accidents in the United States as:
- Track, roadbed, and structure problems
- Signal and communication errors
- Train operation errors (human factors)
- Mechanical and electrical failures
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducted an investigation and found that a switch (a mechanism allowing trains to be guided from one track to another) had diverted the Amtrak from the main line to a low-speed track to the west of the main line, where it slammed into the parked CSX Transportation freight train.
The track was owned by CSX Transportation, which meant CSX Transportation was responsible for the safety of all trains on the track.
The NTSB blamed CSX Transportation for the accident, noting that a CSX Transportation engineer failed to fill out paperwork to make sure the switch would not divert the Amtrak train from the main line. The NTSB also found that Positive Train Control (PTC) would have prevented the accident, and blamed CSX Transportation for delaying the installation of the safety system.
When a train accident happens, it generally takes one of the following forms:
- A pedestrian hit by a train. Most train-related fatalities are the result of a pedestrian being killed while walking along or across a train track.
- A collision with a motor vehicle. Some train accidents happen when motor vehicle drivers ignore crossing arms and warning lights.
- A train-on-train collision. Collisions between trains are rare but generally catastrophic.
- A derailment. A derailment happens when a train comes off the tracks. A recent study found that broken rails or welds were the leading cause of derailments, followed by human factors such as the improper use of switches and excessive speed.
Phillip was wearing headphones and walking with his back to the train at the time of the accident. Train conductors blew the horn and tried to stop, but couldn’t.
Phillip died at the scene at the age of 16. His death was ruled an accident.
What types of injuries are caused by train accidents?
Believe it or not, most train accidents are relatively harmless. This is due in part to the fact that most trains don’t carry passengers, passenger cars are designed to survive some level of impact, and rails generally run through unpopulated places.
Of course, train accidents aren’t always harmless. Common injuries include:
Some train accident injuries are completely unexpected, as was the case in the Graniteville train crash.
On January 6, 2005, a Norfolk Southern train slammed into a locomotive tied down on a side track in Graniteville, South Carolina.
The impact ruptured a freight car loaded with 90 tons of chlorine, releasing a geyser of roughly 60 tons of pressurized liquid gas.
“It was literally like sticking your head into a bottle of bleach,” said Troy Smith who worked about 150 yards from the wreck. “It burned your eyes. It hurt to breathe.”
In addition to the 9 people killed as a result of the impact, 87 people were hospitalized, 851 were treated, and more than 7,000 people were instructed to shelter in place.
Who can be held responsible for a train accident?
In most cases, to hold a person or entity responsible for a train accident, you need to prove that the person or entity’s carelessness caused your accident. Legally speaking, this means you need to show that the person or entity was negligent.
In South Carolina, negligence is established by proving the following elements:
- Duty. You must prove that the person or entity owed you a duty of care.
- Breach. You must prove that the person or entity breached the duty of care.
- Causation. You must prove that the injury you suffered was caused by the defendant’s breach.
How do you know if a person or entity breached their standard of care?
In most negligence cases, the duty of care owed is that of a reasonable person. In other words, a person or entity must exercise the level of care that a “reasonable and prudent” person would exercise to avoid harming passengers. If the person or entity fails to do so and the failure causes your injury, they are negligent.
However, train operators are considered “common carriers” and therefore owe a higher degree of care. Specifically, train operators must exercise the “utmost caution characteristic of a very careful person.”
Depending on the nature of the train accident, one or more of the following parties may be liable:
- The railroad company. Train operators and others who work for a train company 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.
- The track owner. Different sections of 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 might 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.
Greg’s mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit against CSX Transportation.
The court found that CSX Transportation was negligent because it had violated state law by failing to clear overgrown scrub oaks and other vegetation at the rail crossing, and the vegetation blocked Greg’s view of the train.
The court awarded Greg’s mother $4.5 million in actual damages and $7.5 million in punitive damages.
How does an injured passenger recover damages in South Carolina?
If you’re injured in a train accident as a passenger (or as someone unassociated with the train—such as someone crossing the train track), you’ll need to file a personal injury lawsuit in the appropriate court to recover damages.
A lawyer can help you determine the appropriate court in which to file your lawsuit, but in most cases you’ll file your lawsuit in the circuit court in the county where the accident occurred or where the defendant lives (or is incorporated in the case of a company).
In South Carolina, injured plaintiffs can recover the following types of damages in a personal injury lawsuit:
- Economic damages are the monetary losses that stem from the train accident (for example, medical expenses, lost wages, property damage).
- Non-economic damages refer to the non-monetary losses that stem from the train accident (for example, pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life)
- Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant and are only available when the defendant’s conduct was willful, wanton, or reckless.
There are many important factors to keep in mind when filing a personal injury lawsuit in South Carolina—one of which is time.
You only have 3 years from the date of your injury to file your lawsuit (or 2 years if the lawsuit is against the government).
This time limitation is called the statute of limitations, and your claim will be forever barred if you fail to file your lawsuit within this legal deadline.
What if a family member is killed in a train accident?
Though they’re rare, train accident fatalities do happen.
If someone is killed in a train accident, the family of the deceased can file a wrongful death lawsuit against the responsible party. Just like a personal injury lawsuit, the family will need to prove liability. Once liability is proven, the family can recover compensation for the loss of emotional, financial, and other support.
How does an injured railroad employee recover damages in South Carolina?
Railroad employees who are injured or killed in train accidents can recover damages, but the process for doing so is different. If the accident was caused by the railroad employee’s employer or colleague, the railroad employee MUST file a Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) claim.
FELA stands in place of workers’ compensation for railroad employees, but there are some major differences between FELA and workers’ compensation:
|A fault-based system (railroad employees must prove that their employer or colleague was negligent in order to recover damages)
|A no-fault insurance system
|No damage limits
|Damages are capped
|Can recover non-economic damages (pain and suffering)
|Prohibited from recovering non-economic damages
|Employees have 3 years to file a claim
|Employees have 2 years to file a claim
How to prepare for your meeting with a South Carolina attorney
An experienced South Carolina attorney may be able to help you recover damages after a train accident, whether you plan to file a personal injury lawsuit or a FELA claim.
Even if you’re not sure that you need an attorney, it’s a good idea to meet with one to find out your options and learn about the legal challenges you might encounter. Most initial consultations are free and the attorney will be able to review the facts of your case and tell you whether you have a compensable claim.
To get the most out of your initial consultation, be sure to bring all the documentation you have related to your case.
Additionally, you’ll want to prepare some questions for the attorney to help you decide whether the attorney is right for your case.
Ready to schedule your appointment with a South Carolina attorney? Use our free online directory to locate an attorney near you.