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Find out how train accidents happen and when you can receive compensation
There are more than 4,700 miles of railroad track in Virginia. Though many of the trains traveling through the Old Dominion State transport freight, there are still several railroad services — including the Cardinal, the Crescent, the Virginia Railway Express, and the Tide — that transport passengers.
Fortunately, train travel is extremely safe. According to the United States Department of Transportation, there are only about 5,800 train accidents every year nationwide (compared to 6 million car accidents).
Nevertheless, train accidents do happen and the results can be catastrophic.
Let’s take a look at the common causes of train accidents, who’s liable, and what steps you should take if you’re injured in a train accident in Virginia.
Common causes of train accidents
Most train accidents in the United States are the result of human error, such as failing to slow down when approaching a curve.
But sometimes trains crash for other reasons, including:
- Defective train equipment
- Defective train tracks
- Objects obstructing the rails
- Defective traffic signals
In 1903, the Southern Railway mail train (known as “Fast Mail”) derailed at the Stillhouse Trestle in Danville, Virginia. Eleven people were killed in the crash and several passengers were injured, making it the worst train crash in Virginia history.
A subsequent investigation found that the engineer had been operating the train at excessive speeds in order to maintain the train’s reputation for never being late. As a result, the engineer was unable to sufficiently slow the train as he approached the sharp curve leading into the trestle, causing the train to derail and plunge into the ravine.
The accident inspired Virginia musicians, G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter, to record the ballad “Wreck of the Old 97,” which was later covered by Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie, and several other famous musicians.
Who’s liable for a train accident in Virginia?
Railroad companies are considered “common carriers” in Virginia, which means railroad companies and their employees owe passengers and bystanders a duty to exercise the highest degree of care to avoid causing injury to them or their property.
If a railroad company or employee fails to exercise the utmost care and a passenger or bystander is injured as a result, the passenger or bystander can sue for negligence.
But there are other parties who might have caused or contributed to the accident, including:
- The manufacturer of the train or track. If the train or track was defective and the defect contributed to the accident, the manufacturer could be held liable.
- Drivers and pedestrians. Sometimes drivers or pedestrians cause train accidents by driving or walking into the path of an oncoming train. These accidents are often the result of a suicide attempt, but sometimes the driver or pedestrian enters the path of an oncoming train by accident.
In Crozet, Virginia, Dana Naylor drove a garbage truck into the path of an oncoming Amtrak train.
An investigation conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board found that Naylor was intoxicated and drove the garbage truck around lowered crossing-gate arms onto the tracks, where it was struck by the train.
Several injured train passengers filed a lawsuit against Naylor and the train conductor, alleging that Naylor was negligent for driving while intoxicated and the train conductor was negligent for taking too long to engage the brake.
The lawsuits are still pending.
Keep in mind that while the employee of a railroad company may have caused the train 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.
What damages can be recovered in Virginia?
If you’re injured in a train accident in Virginia, you can recover the following damages:
- Economic damages: the monetary losses that result from your accident (medical expenses, lost wages, etc.)
- Noneconomic damages: the non-monetary losses that result from your accident (pain and suffering, etc.)
If someone was killed in a train accident, certain members of their family can recover damages by filing a wrongful death lawsuit against the at-fault party. The damages that can be recovered in a wrongful death lawsuit are intended to compensate the family member for their loss and include things like loss of support, loss of services, lost prospect of inheritance, and funeral expenses.
Can injured railroad workers file claims?
If you’re an injured railroad worker, you won’t be able to file a lawsuit or a workers’ compensation claim if you’re injured on the job. Instead, you’ll need to file a claim through the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), which provides a special system of legal recovery for railroad employees and their families when a railroad employee is injured on the job.
There are some significant differences between FELA claims and workers’ compensation claims:
|Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA)||Workers’ compensation|
|Fault-based system (you must prove that the employer was negligent to receive compensation)||No-fault system (you don’t need to prove that anyone was negligent to receive compensation)|
|No damage caps||Damages are capped by statute|
|You can receive damages for pain and suffering||You can’t receive damages for pain and suffering|
FELA also requires railroad companies to meet certain standards. The failure to meet these standards provides a basis for recovery. These standards include:
- Providing a safe workplace
- Exercising a reasonable level of care for employee safety
- Providing employees with basic safety equipment, tools, and 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
Steps to take after a train wreck
If you’ve been injured in a train accident, the first thing you should do is seek medical attention. Keep in mind that many serious injuries don’t show symptoms until hours, days, or even weeks after an accident. Regardless, it’s important to establish a record of medical treatment so the defendant can’t claim that you weren’t really injured or that you failed to mitigate your damages.
Once you’ve called an ambulance, you should:
- Take photographs of the scene and any visible injuries
- Write down the contact information of any witnesses (including other passengers)
- Keep a record of all the medical treatment you receive (our damages worksheet can help)
- Preserve any evidence you may have recovered at the scene
- Reach out to an attorney who has experience with train accidents (our online directory can help)
We hope you never experience a train crash. But if you do, we hope you’ll schedule an initial consultation with an experienced attorney so you can learn about your options.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.