Frequently Asked Questions
Railroad accidents present incredible challenges, sometimes decades after they occur. Victims can feel an overwhelming mix of emotions - confusion, anger, frustration, isolation, and mourning can all result from the physical trauma or loss of life associated with these devastating accidents. Legal issues surrounding these accidents can become quite complex - leaving victims feeling even more confused and unsure about their options for the future. The attorneys of Pottroff Law Office, P.A. are dedicated to helping victims of railroad accidents find justice and peace. If you've got questions, we're here to help.
While there is no substitute for direct legal counsel from an experienced railroad accident attorney, this FAQ is designed to provide you with some answers to help you move forward with your life. Ask your questions for our attorneys to answer, or view questions that others have asked. With case-specific questions, don't hesitate to contact us: we'll set up a free initial consultation.
Don't sign. If the railroad has asked you to sign some legal papers, seek legal counsel before you proceed. Some railroad companies have acted reprehensibly in these scenarios, so it is in your best interest to seek legal counsel before signing away anything.
The specifics of your case determine the answer to this question. It is generally in your best interest to contact an experienced railroad accident lawyer to help you decide what actions to take if you have been injured.
A successful lawsuit against a railroad will show that it is liable for injury or wrongful death. When the railroad is shown to be liable, it is responsible for compensatory damages - things like medical expenses, income lost from the accident, loss of family, loss of physical ability, social and educational experiences, emotional damages such as embarrassment, stress, and depression, decreased enjoyment of life, and other possible losses.
In addition to compensatory damages, severe circumstances in some jurisdictions can warrant punitive damages - costs intended to punish the railroad for wrongdoing.
Train accident litigation is a complicated legal arena. It is in your best interest to consult an experienced attorney in this area of law. Intense investigation is almost always needed to ensure a successful case. Because of this, it is imperative to act quickly, to ensure that securing evidence and the interviewing of witnesses can be undertaken by your attorney. If you are unsure, you are welcomed to contact our train accident attorneys and set up a free initial consultation to discuss your options.
The answer is dependent on your local jurisdiction. If you are the surviving relative of a train accident victim, then you may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit for the loss of your loved one. If the victim had a personal injury claim against the railroad for the accident before death, then the personal representative or the executor of the victim's estate may be able to bring that lawsuit on behalf of the estate. To find out specifics about your jurisdiction, contact an experienced railroad accident attorney.
Railroad companies have no responsibilities greater than they do towards their passengers. Railroads are considered "common carriers" - meaning that they offer transportation services to the public at large for a set fee. Common carriers are extremely liable for injuries to their own passengers, sometimes including injuries brought upon by third parties, depending on the circumstances. From boarding to exiting, trains must exercise absolute care with their passengers, or else they are potentially liable for any injury their passengers suffer, even if the railroad is only minimally at fault. Again, this includes many cases where the injury is brought upon by a third party, or dangerous weather conditions.
Careful operation, inspection, and maintenance of all railroad equipment and facilities is legally expected from railroads. Rail employees must be properly trained, professional, and cautious. Entrance and exit equipment such as handrails, doors, and steps must be safely designed and maintained.
There are reasonable limits, yes. The railroad is not required to absolutely guarantee safety in any and all circumstances - highly unpredictable circumstances or accidents may fall outside of railroad responsibility. Passengers also must conduct themselves reasonably, by following railroad safety rules and not exposing themselves to dangerous conditions while the safe alternatives are accessible. The specifics are highly context-dependent, but circumstances entirely beyond railroad control and which would not have been prevented through greater safety measures are more likely to fall outside of railroad responsibility.
The answer to this question is complicated, and the specifics of any particular case are going to be constrained by a variety of factors. For one, it is important to know that federal law preempts state law. If federal law claims that a train was going an appropriate speed, then typically no state law can successfully be used to argue that a train was going too fast. However, matters often get quite complicated in the relationship between the laws.
In general, it is safe to say that railroads have a responsibility to maintain a reasonably safe crossing environment, to sound their horn as they approach and pass, and to travel within the designated speed limits. Trains do have right-of-way at crossings, but the railroads themselves usually must maintain the crossings (this varies between crossings and jurisdictions, however). Overgrown vegetation or malfunctioning signals can prove to be fatal, and negligent railroads should carry the responsibility when they fail to do their part. Particularly an issue is dangerous crossings without proper warning equipment which, in spite of repeat accidents or complaints, the railroads find ways of ignoring. This is a tragic case of railroads ignoring their responsibility, and it is happening all the time.
Far too common. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there were 2,384 crossing collisions in 2008 alone. Operation Lifesaver estimates that a crossing collision occurs roughly once per two hours in the U.S. The statistics are alarmingly high. The fatalities generated by these tragic accidents run high - 797 in 2008 were killed, while 8,371 were injured.
Alarmed? We are too. That's why we're fighting hard to change an industry where bare safety technology is usually not even implemented, and for the victims of this industry.
There are two, equally important ways of approaching this question. First, it is important to emphasize that there are in fact changes being made. Various sectors of the public are well-informed about crossing safety issues and are thus very concerned and active in the push for safety. A tragic series of passenger rail crashes - the California Metrolink crash, then Boston, and now D.C. - has prompted many officials to look intently at railroad safety issues (although the focus here has not been primarily on crossings). While the safety program Operation Lifesaver is callously used by railroad companies for jury tampering (what do I mean?), beneficial safety programs are out there, and new safety improvements are being implemented to various degrees.
In spite of all of this, there can be no doubt that far, far more could be done - particularly by the negligent railroad companies themselves. Proper warning equipment at railroad crossings costs about $100,000 plus maintenance fees (although railroad companies frequently exaggerate the actual cost of safety equipment to generate the impression that installing safety equipment all over is more implausible than it actually is). The simple fact of the matter is that it is cheaper for railroads to lose a few lawsuits each year than it would be for them to implement the necessary safety changes to save lives. You'd be amazed to hear the spin put on each case by railroad companies: based on their accounts, you'd think that they must not have any responsibilities at crossings. This simply isn't true, but shifting the blame by pointing fingers at states, local municipalities, and victims has proven financially beneficial for the railroads.
So, in short, the railroads have made money off of ignoring safety issues and denying responsibilities at crossings. Even though doing so leads to the loss of a few lawsuits, their financial losses are still less than if they were to actually implement safety technology. At least in the short-run. In the long run, of course, they'd be better off to pour far more dollars into safety improvements.
Two umbrella categories can be used to describe how and why derailments occur: technological malfunction (which includes machinery which unexpectedly fails and unkempt, dangerous tracks) and human error (such as mistakes made by the conductor or engineer, inattentiveness or otherwise). It should be emphasized that both of these things are bound to happen with time. Humans, even when well trained and highly qualified, are going to make errors. And in a system like our railroad system, technological errors and malfunctions are bound to occasionally take place. In spite of the somewhat inevitable occurrence of these two things, however, derailments still can be largely prevented. When implementing safety technologies it is standard to account for both human error and technological malfunction in the equation. Railroad companies have become known for ignoring these factors as they implement safety technology. A bare minimum of systems safety is not appropriate, because mistakes are bound to overwhelm the system.