What to Know About Virginia Railroad Crossing Accidents

Breit Cantor Grana BucknerSeptember 3, 2021

In the wake of a tragic Mechanicsville railroad crossing accident, many Virginia residents are demanding for CSX Railroad to install crossing arms and other warning signals at a deadly intersection. Indeed, railroad crossings that aren’t clearly marked can be risky; colliding with a multi-ton train can destroy even the most reinforced passenger vehicle.

If you’ve been involved in a railroad crossing accident, it’s important to seek legal advice quickly to secure your rights. Below, we’ll discuss the common factors behind railroad crossing accidents and what you can do to protect yourself if an accident does take place.

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How Common are Railroad Crossing Accidents?

In 2020, there were nearly 8,700 train accidents across the U.S. This number was significantly reduced from the 11,740 accidents that took place in 2019, largely attributable to having fewer drivers on the road during the COVID-19 pandemic. These collisions resulted in more than 750 fatalities.

Virginia has had 14 railroad crossing accidents in 2021 so far, significantly more than the 6 total in 2020. Private railroad crossings have racked up another 4 collisions so far in 2021, as compared to 6 in 2020.

Causes of Railroad Crossing Accidents

Many railroad crossing accidents can be boiled down to a few common causes. These include:

  • Faulty or absent warning signals
  • Obstructions in the line of vision for oncoming vehicles
  • The train’s failure to signal
  • Mistakes by the train operator
  • Defects in the tracks
  • Obstructions on the track
  • Defects in the train or its components

One or more of these factors can quickly create a dangerous or even deadly situation.

Protected vs. Passive Railroad Crossing

With hundreds of thousands of railroad crossings across the U.S., it’s inevitable that some of these crossings will intersect with roadways. Unfortunately, these are the most common areas for railway accidents to occur; and many of these crossings are missing lights, signals, or even gates to protect drivers. These are known as “passive” railroad crossings, as compared to “protected” crossings that are clearly marked.

Most Common Injuries in Railroad Crossing Accidents

Freight trains are over a mile long, can weigh thousands of tons, and take a mile or more to come to a complete stop once the brakes are applied. When a train collides with a pedestrian, bicyclist, or vehicle, the damage can be catastrophic. Some of the injuries that are commonly sustained in a railroad crossing accident include:

Brain injuries 

  • Blows to the brain can cause serious and sometimes lifelong damage. Mild to moderate traumatic brain injuries are associated with memory loss, changes in personality, impulse control issues, and fine motor coordination problems. Moderate to serious traumatic brain injuries may leave the person unable to walk, speak, or care for themselves.

Broken bones

  • When a train strikes a vehicle or a person, it’s likely to shatter bones. Depending on the severity of the break and the body parts affected, the broken bone may be set in a cast or surgically repaired. Recovery time for a broken bone can range from a couple of months to a year or longer.

Amputations

  •  It’s not uncommon for a pedestrian who narrowly dodges a train to lose an arm or leg in the process. In one study, eight of 11 pedestrians involved in a train collision suffered one or more amputations. This can require learning to live without a limb, and the cost of a prosthetic limb can range from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars.

Internal bleeding

  • Whenever you’re subject to blunt force at a high speed or velocity, you risk not only breaking your bones but also rupturing internal organs and blood vessels. If internal bleeding is not diagnosed and dealt with quickly, you could be at risk of serious organ damage or even death.

Other more minor, but still common, railroad crossing injuries include cuts, bruises, contusions, tendon and ligament strains and ruptures, and hematomas (small pockets of internal bleeding).

Who’s Liable in a Railroad Crossing Accident?

Assessing liability in a railroad crossing accident can be challenging—and all the more reason to involve an attorney in the process as soon as you can. The parties involved will try to downplay their own responsibility in the circumstances that led to an accident. And in many cases, a railroad crossing accident can be traced to more than one responsible party.

Below we’ll describe some parties whose negligence may have contributed to a train collision and how these individuals or entities may be held liable.

Train Conductors and Engineers

Because it takes trains so long to stop, it’s crucial that the conductor or engineer is always on the watch for potential hazards. Conductor inattention or intoxication can delay reaction times, putting motorists at risk. Conductor inattention can also increase the risk of a train derailment, which can injure train passengers and members of the public.

The Railroad Company

If a collision can be traced back to a train conductor or other employees who were inadequately trained, the railroad company that employs these individuals can usually be held responsible as well. Railroad companies are charged with training and supervising their crew to ensure that they follow all applicable laws, rules, and regulations.

The Track Owner

Many railroad companies operate on the same set of tracks, owned either by another railroad company, a business, or a private individual. It’s the track owner’s responsibility to ensure the track is in good working condition and free from hazards or obstructions.

The Train Designer or Manufacturer

If a crash can be traced back to a defect in the train, such as faulty brakes or an inaccurate speedometer, the train manufacturer may be at fault. And if the train was recently repaired and it’s these repairs that are at issue in a railroad collision lawsuit, these maintenance workers may be named as additional defendants.

Local Government

The decision to transform a crossing from passive to protected often lies in the hands of local government officials. If federal laws warrant additional warnings at a certain crossing, the area is heavily traveled, or there has been more than one accident at a particular crossing with no local government response, the city or county council could be added as a party.

Track Maintenance Companies

If a track owner has contracted out the maintenance on a particular section of track to a private company, this company can be held responsible for any track-related factors that contributed to the collision.

The Motorist or Pedestrian

In some situations, especially those involving poorly marked train crossings or trains with defective lights or whistles, there is nothing a motorist could have done to prevent a collision. However, in many cases, a vehicle driver’s decision (or inattention) was a contributing factor in the accident. Drivers who rush to cross a set of tracks before the train arrives or who inadvertently park on the tracks while waiting for a red light to turn green could be held partially at fault for any resulting damages.

Potential Damages Available in a Railroad Crossing Accident

If you prevail in a railroad crossing accident lawsuit—or are able to secure a settlement in your favor—you’ll be entitled to recover some or all of the following costs:

  • Your medical expenses
  • Costs of ongoing care (like rehab or physical therapy)
  • Lost wages
  • Lost future earnings (if you’re not able to return to your pre-crash job or career)
  • Any costs associated with retrofitting your house or vehicle to accommodate your crash-related disabilities
  • Pain and suffering

If you were married at the time of the accident, your spouse may be entitled to recover “loss of consortium” damages, which compensate the spouse of an injured person for the loss of care and affection resulting from the accident.

Contributory and Comparative Negligence

Virginia is one of a few jurisdictions with a very strict contributory negligence law. Under this standard, an injured person who was partially at fault for their own accident—even by as little as one percent—is unable to recover damages from the other responsible party. However, lawsuits against common carriers (like railroad companies) by those who entrusted the common carrier with their safety (like passengers) have a less strict rule called comparative negligence. This allows for recovery even if the injured person had some responsibility.

Our Experienced Attorneys Can Preserve Your Rights

If you or a loved one has been injured in a railroad crossing accident, going to court is probably the last thing on your mind—as it should be. It’s important to take all the time you need to focus on your physical and emotional recovery.

Unfortunately, you’re likely to be bombarded with communications from the train company and any insurance carriers almost immediately after the crash. You could face high-pressure tactics designed to encourage you to settle your claim for pennies on the dollar. And with the severe nature of many train-related injuries, it could be months or even years before you can accurately assess the true costs you’ve suffered.

At Breit Cantor, our experienced attorneys are well versed in Virginia railroad law. We’ll work tirelessly to preserve your rights and ensure that you receive all the compensation you’ve earned. Give us a call today to learn about the services we offer.

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