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Train Accidents and Liability

There are many forms of transportation, some of which are inherently safer than others. Traveling by automobile is the least safe form of transportation, it is the most likely to result in accidents. Travelling by airplane is generally considered to be the safest form of transportation. 

People in the United States have been travelling on passenger trains for almost 200 years. Goods have been transported by freight trains for even longer. Trains safely transport large groups of people and goods every day. Train travel is particularly important in big cities like New York or Charlotte. Trains cut down on the number of automobiles and trucks on the road, thereby decreasing accidents, traffic and emissions. 

Trains are among the safest forms of travel, with safety improving dramatically over the past decade. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there were 234,784,581 passengers transported on trains for the year 2020. While that number is down from prior years due to the pandemic and less people travelling than usual, the numbers show that:

  • there were 8,760 train accidents/incidents
  • 752 deaths resulted from train accidents/incidents
  • the majority of accidents occurred at railroad crossings 

Compare that to the U.S. Department of Transportation 2020 car accident statistics which show that 38,680 deaths resulted from car accidents. Clearly trains are a safer way to travel.

Leading Causes of Train Accidents

There are a number of reasons why train accidents occur. One of the biggest is human error. Human error could occur as a result of the train operator, or a pedestrian, or a car or other vehicle trying to cross the tracks. Cars and pedestrians sometimes try to beat the train, ignoring gates and warning signals.Sometimes those warning signals malfunction. Either one can lead to injury on the part of the pedestrian or driver and/or to the passengers on the train. Conductors and engineers make mistakes and act negligently. Conductors and engineers may be found guilty of negligence if they were operating the train while drunk or on drugs, were operating the train at an unsafe speed, were tired or were distracted by things like their phones. 

Equipment failure can also lead to train accidents and resulting injuries. Examples of equipment failure include:

  • defective brakes
  • gates, warning lights and sounds not working properly
  • rails and tracks that are not properly maintained or are defective
  • failures due to objects on the train track
  • bad weather (ice in particular) 
  • cargo not being loaded properly onto a freight train. 

 Examples of accidents that occur involving trains include:

  • train doors that malfunction
  • slip and falls occurring on the train due to lurches or sudden stops
  • slip and falls on train platforms
  • train collisions with cars, trucks and other trains
  • train derailments

Some of the more common injuries resulting from train accidents include:

  • broken bones
  • neck injuries
  • spinal cord injuries
  • cuts and bruises
  • burns
  • smoke inhalation
  • shock or electrocution
  • post traumatic stress

Liability in Train Accident Cases

Unlike in a car accident, where the operator of the car that caused the crash could be sued and held liable for injuries caused to others, determining liability in train accidents is more complicated. Trains are owned by different entities, even those operating on the same tracks, and rails and tracks are also owned and operated by different entities. Some trains are owned privately while others are operated by cities or state entities. In North Carolina, for example, the North Carolina Railroad Company, a private business but one in which the state owns 100% of the stock, owns a 317 mile rail corridor between Charlotte and Morehead City. Both freight and passengers travel on trains, owned and operated independently, along that route. Norfolk Southern Corporation is one of the companies that leases track to move freight throughout North Carolina while Amtrak moves passengers along the same track.   

In addition to the train company being liable, depending on the nature of the train accident, other parties that might be liable include:

  • the train engineer or conductor, particularly if they were acting negligently 
  • in the case of malfunctioning equipment, the manufacturer of the equipment
  • the entity or persons responsible for maintaining the tracks
  • the entity or persons responsible for maintaining the train equipment
  • the driver of a vehicle that caused the train accident
  • a pedestrian who may have caused the train accident

In addition to train passengers and others being injured in train accidents, train employees can also be injured while on the job. Train employees who are injured due to an accident while on the job do not file workers’ compensation claims like most other employees do. Instead they would file a claim under the Federal Employees Liability Act (FELA). Under workers’ compensation, employees who are injured on the job are covered for their injuries regardless of who caused the injury. Under FELA, the employee must prove that there was negligence on the part of the railroad company in order to recover. 


Those injured in train accidents are able to seek the same damages available in any other personal injury suit including:

  • medical costs - hospital bills, doctor bills, prescriptions, rehabilitation, assistive medical devices
  • lost wages if time is missed from work due to the injury
  • damage to property if there is any. For example if a train were to hit a car then the cost of replacing or fixing the car would be covered
  • pain and suffering
  • in the case of death, funeral and burial costs

It is important to know that North Carolina follows the doctrine of contributory negligence. Therefore, if the injuries were caused through any fault of the victim’s then damages would not be recoverable. 

Why Do I Need a Charlotte Law Firm?

While train accidents do not occur frequently, they do happen and often result in serious injury. The Charlotte, NC based lawyers at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC are experienced personal injury attorneys who can help you understand your rights and whether or not you have damages and should proceed with a claim. Please contact our office at 704-714-1450. There is no fee for an initial consultation. 

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