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Tips to recover damages following a train accident in the Evergreen State
Train travel might sound like a romanticized remnant of the past, but there are still more than 3,000 miles of active railroad lines in Washington state.
What’s more, passenger and freight rail transportation is expected to grow considerably over the next decade.
With train travel and transportation alive and well, this begs the question:
What happens when a person is injured in a train accident or while working on the railroad?
Train accident injury claims are similar to car accident claims, but some important differences make receiving compensation more complicated. In this article, we’ll take a look at train accidents and what you need to do to protect your rights following a train crash.
Washington train accident statistics
Train accidents, like plane accidents, are incredibly rare. But they typically make the national news when they happen.
The crash killed 3 passengers and injured 57 others.
A subsequent investigation found that the regional transit authority failed to take steps to mitigate a curve and failed to properly instruct the train engineer. The investigation also found that the train was traveling 50 miles over the speed limit at the time of the crash.
Several lawsuits have been filed by injured passengers against Amtrak, including a 2019 lawsuit that resulted in a $17 million verdict.
In 2020, there were 41 reported train accidents in Washington, resulting in only 2 injuries. The year before, there were 48 reported train accidents, resulting in only 2 injuries.
|Washington train accidents (2015-2020)|
|Source: Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety Analysis|
Why do train accidents happen?
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which investigates most train accidents, identified the most common causes of train accidents as follows:
- Track, roadbed, and structure problems
- Signal and communication errors
- Train operation errors (human factors)
- Mechanical and electrical failures
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 crossing 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. Derailments are actually fairly common, but most don’t result in injuries. 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.
Who can be held responsible for a train accident?
When you’re involved in a car accident, it’s usually pretty easy to determine who’s responsible (or at least who might be responsible) for the accident. Determining who’s responsible for a train accident, however, is often much more complicated. Investigations undertaken by the FRA typically take months or even years to reach a conclusion as to who or what was responsible for the crash.
Potentially responsible parties include:
- 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.
- Railroad employees. A railroad employee may be personally liable for a crash if the actions that caused the crash were intentional or criminal.
- 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.
How does an injured train passenger recover damages in Washington?
If a passenger is injured in a train accident, the passenger must file a personal injury lawsuit against the responsible party to recover damages. In most cases, the injured passenger will need to establish that the defendant was negligent.
In Washington, negligence is established by proving the following 4 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 a higher degree of care.
- Breach. The injured passenger must prove that the defendant breached the 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 financial harm.
Wrongful death lawsuits and fatal train wrecks
If a loved one is killed in a train accident, certain surviving family members may be able to receive compensation by filing 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. Available damages include:
- Medical expenses
- Funeral and burial expenses
- Lost wages and income that the person would have likely earned if death had not occurred
- Loss of care, companionship, and other intangible benefits
To receive compensation, surviving family members 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 Washington?
If a railroad employee is injured in a train or railroad accident that was caused by their employer or a colleague, the railroad employee can’t file a personal injury lawsuit. Instead, 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 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 Washington train injury claims
In most cases, injured passengers, railroad employees, and surviving family members of loved ones killed in a train wreck have 3 years from the date of the train accident to file a lawsuit. If you fail to file a lawsuit within this time, your claim will likely be forever barred.
Finding the right Washington train accident attorney
Train accident lawsuits are complex. Train accidents often involve multiple defendants (including government entities), multiple injured parties, and complex state and federal regulations. For these reasons, it’s important to hire an attorney who has experience navigating train accident cases.
To find an experienced attorney near you, consider using the Enjuris Lawyer Directory.
Once you’ve identified an attorney, schedule an initial consultation (most initial consultations are free). In addition to hiring a competent attorney, it’s important to hire someone with whom you get along, as train accident cases sometimes last for years.
Here are some articles to help make sure you hire the right attorney:
- What does a personal injury lawyer do?
- Tips on finding a personal injury lawyer
- What happens during an initial consultation?
- Preparing for your first meeting with a personal injury attorney
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.