Railroads are generally classified as common carriers, which means they have a legal obligation to use the highest degree of care and diligence to protect their passengers and the public at large.  This is especially true in the case of passenger trains, though railroads in many cases are liable for damages caused by freight train derailments. If the equipment is not properly maintained and operated, then derailments can occur – tragically causing catastrophic injuries and death. The destruction from a derailment can include massive amounts of property and building damage as well as injuries and death to passengers and the public.  Though they are quite destructive, derailments can be avoided.

In developing systems safety it is necessary to build in considerations of human error and malfunctioning – things which occur naturally over time.  Frequently, however, railroad companies have been known to ignore these facts in an attempt to save money – a series of minor decisions, perhaps, but the end result can cost lives.  Some failures are simply foreseeable and therefore must be taken into account and compensated for through various mechanisms – mechanisms which at present are lacking.

Why Railroad Derailments Happen

The most common cause of railroad derailment is human error on the part of the conductor or engineer. The second most common cause of railroad derailment is an equipment malfunction. This can include broken tracks or a failure in the “positive train control” technology that is used to prevent collisions. More rarely, some third-party interference can cause a railroad to derail in which case it is not the railroad’s negligence that is responsible for the derailment.

  • Operator error. Even railroad tracks have speed limits. When those speed limits are not adhered to, the results can be far worse than speeding in traffic. In one case, speeding on the tracks resulted in 13 train cars careening off the tracks on an overpass. The train cars ended up falling into oncoming traffic. The train was traveling 80 mph in a 30 mph zone. The result left two people dead and over 100 injured. In 2015, speeding was found to be the cause of another train accident. The train was traveling over 100 mph in a 50 mph zone. The resulting accident left 7 people dead and 140 injured.
  • Outdated equipment or poor maintenance. Sometimes the tracks themselves are to blame for an accident. This was the case in a 2015 accident in West Virginia. The train was carrying several tons of crude oil and when it derailed on a bad track, the oil caught fire. While no one was killed, the property and environment damage was extensive.
  • Signal failures. Trains are now outfitted with positive train control technology that uses GPS to coordinate the locations and destinations of thousands of trains across the U.S. When this technology fails, the chances that two trains will collide with one another goes up exponentially. It is the job of the train corporations to maintain their equipment and adequately train their engineers so that these types of accidents do not happen.
  • Mechanical failure aboard the train. Less frequent but still concerning, a sizeable amount of crashes are caused by a mechanical failure aboard the train. It is the railroad’s responsibility to ensure that all equipment is tested before carrying cargo or people. When they fail, it is their responsibility to pay for any damages due to those aboard the train who injured or killed.

Liability Issues in Train Derailments

While it’s true that train travel is much safer than other forms of transportation, when something does go wrong, it tends to go really wrong. Trains carry dangerous chemicals and even more precious cargo: you are your loved ones. Train accidents, when they happen, leave multiple fatalities, environmental disasters, and millions of dollars in property damage in their wake.

Secondly, after the National Transportation Safety Board performs an intensive investigation on the cause of the railroad accident, it’s generally uncovered that the derailment was tragically preventable. In one case, it was discovered that an engineer missed a signal to stop because he was texting while operating the train. Had he not been, he would have noticed that a red signal was alerting him to an oncoming train operating on the same set of tracks. He was among the 25 who died in that collision.
Like all tort or injury lawsuits, companies are responsible for the conduct of their employees and the maintenance on their equipment. They are responsible for ensuring that their passengers are traveling safely and they are responsible when they fail in that duty.

Contact a Train Derailment Accident Attorney Today

If you’ve been a victim in any way of a train derailment, it is important that you contact an attorney who knows the technical details of railroad litigation. The lawyers of Pottroff & Karlin, LLC have devoted themselves solely to railroad safety, and are eager to help you with your problems. If you’ve been a victim of a train derailment, do not hesitate to contact us. Victims of these accidents are often feeling confused, hurt, and are wondering what legal solutions they have. Contact us and we’ll discuss your options openly and honestly.

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Bob Pottroff has fought for the victims of the railroads’ callous disregard for safety more than any other attorney that I know. I should know because I am currently Chair-elect of the Railroad Section of ATLA.

Robert SchuetzeBoulder, Colorado

Mr. Pottroff has shaken the rail industry to its very roots. Settlements are now more common as a result of the way he has exposed the industry’s wrongdoing.

Mike EasleyArkansas

Bob Pottroff’s work in railroad safety law is unmatched and he has been the source of great advice and phenomenal creativity.

Roger BrownJefferson City, Missouri

In addition to his substantive contributions to railroad grade crossing safety, I have personally observed his untiring efforts and contributions to improving the integrity of the legal system.

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