Train Crashes Are Often Avoidable

By The Cochran Firm DC

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The world was devastated to recently learn of a high-speed train derailing in Spain, killing 78 passengers and leaving many others seriously injured.

D.C.-area resident Ana-Maria Cordoba was among the deceased, according to media reports. Cordoba was an employee of the Arlington, Virginia Catholic diocese. Cordoba's husband and daughter, who were with her on the train, survived and are reported to be in stable condition.

Shortly after the accident, shocking video footage of the train accident emerged, which appeared to show the train traveling at an extremely high rate of speed around a mild turn. In an interview with Spanish radio, the senior transport official in Spain's Development Ministry said the train looked like it was traveling much faster than the 50 mph speed limit for that part of the track. The train was traveling between 96 and 112 mph when it derailed and crashed, according to an Associated Press analysis. The train's driver is being investigated by police for criminal behavior in causing the accident.

Last week's tragedy was the deadliest train crash in Spain since 1972, when a train hit a stationary train car, killing 86 passengers and leaving 112 injured.

Unfortunately, train accidents like that in Spain are often avoidable and can be caused by negligence and carelessness. Although the law in Spain may differ, American railroads owe their passengers a legal duty of care. If the railroad fails to meet this duty of care, the law provides passengers the power to seek justice against the railroad.

In the United States, passenger train operators are usually considered common carriers. Passengers entrust their lives and health to common carriers and, as such, the law holds common carriers to a higher standard of care than other businesses. Some of the things that train operators and companies may be held responsible for include:

  • Faulty traffic signal that causes an accident;
  • Sleepy, or drowsy train driver;
  • Collisions;
  • Failure to follow government safety regulations;
  • Substance abuse by driver causing an accident;
  • Derailment due to excessively high speed or other negligent behavior;
  • Negligent or careless braking;
  • Aged and faulty tracks that have not been repaired;
  • Train driver sending text messages or using a cell phone while operating a train;
  • Maintaining an unsafe speed;
  • Negligently transporting dangerous cargo on unsafe tracks or routes;
  • Failure to repair cars, signals, equipment, and tracks;

Injuries suffered by train accident victims include injuries to the brain and spine, burns, broken bones, and abrasions. Claims against train companies can range from a negligence lawsuit against a train operator's employer to a defective product suit against a train parts or equipment maker. By bringing a lawsuit, train accident and injury victims may recover costs for hospital bills, lost wages, emergency medical-related travel, caregiver and housekeeping expenses, and compensation for pain and suffering.

There is a wide array of rules and case law relevant to train accidents. Where a train involved in an accident was operated by a government entity, the victim may need to file notice quickly in order to maintain a claim. If the crash occurred in a foreign country or different state from where the victim lives, there may be jurisdictional issues as well. Another relevant consideration is the legal doctrine of respondeat superior, which is Latin for "let the master answer," which can be used to hold railroad companies liable for the negligent actions of their employees.

The Federal Railroad Administration reports that train accidents cause 1,000 deaths annually in the United States. The D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area had its own train accident tragedy four years ago when a Metro subway train crashed into a separate train at the Fort Totten station. The Metro crash left nine people dead and more than 70 injured. It was the worst accident in the D.C. Metrorail's history.

The Cochran Firm DC represented many of the Fort Totten crash victims and was co-liason counsel for all plaintiffs in the consolidated litigation. The Cochran Firm DC's train accident lawyers learned firsthand of Metrorail's poor safety supervision. Information revealed during lawsuits over the train accident revealed a culture of neglect. In the four years since the accident, Metro executives and government safety officials have stated Metro has made progress on safety issues. Local D.C. media have reported that Metrorail changed to manual train controls from their poorly-maintained automatic control system, made large investments into its system, and improved other safety procedures.

Large corporations and government entities often do not change safety procedures without economic incentives. Because of this dynamic, lawsuits can serve as a powerful tool for positive social change, the promotion of a safety culture, and accident prevention. The train accident in Spain was a horrifically tragic event and many hope that train operators and companies will constructively use this terrible catastrophe to improve passenger safety in the future.

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