Our railroad injury client was operating an Amtrak locomotive when he suffered serious back and knee injuries in a derailment as his passenger train approached Lake City, South Carolina. The engineer was also later diagnosed with a mild traumatic brain injury.
Our investigation revealed that the train derailed because an earlier accident involving a streetsweeper knocked the tracks leading into Lake City out of alignment. Other evidence showed that our client had grounds for seeking compensation and damages from the streetsweeper driver, the company that owned the machine and hired the driver, Amtrak and CSX, which owned the and maintained the tracks.
Shortly before the derailment, the streetsweeper driver struck a curb, left the roadway, and came to a stop across the track. The streetsweeper caught on and bent one of the rails as its operator backed off the tracks. That incident earned the streetsweeper driver a ticket, which was still being issued when the passenger train derailed.
A single South Carolina circuit court trial was held to determine if the driver and the three companies should pay our railroad injury client for his medical expenses, TBI and permanent disability. The original judge disallowed almost all the evidence we had against Amtrak and CSX — essentially making it impossible for jurors to consider whether negligence on the railroad companies’ part had contributed to injuring the engineer. Subsequently, the jury returned a verdict against the trucking company and driver. Our client received $577.000 from the insurance companies for the two remaining defendants.
Holding the railroad companies accountable for negligently failing to protect the passenger train engineer required two appeals, a second trial and a settlement negotiation.
Key Legal Strategy
We based or case for the injured railroad engineer on an accident reconstruction and a detailed survey of the trackbed where the derailment occurred. We started by studying accident reports and photographs supplied by the local police, the Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board. We also visited the site of the derailment.
The ticket issued to the streetsweeper driver left little doubt over his negligence and responsibility. The company that employed the driver also bore responsibility for failing to ensure he could and would operate safely.
Essential pieces of evidence against Amtrak and CSX that we uncovered included a broken rail tie lodged in the suspension of the streetsweeper and a gap between the rocks (i.e., ballast) forming the trackbed and the rail ties. These facts allowed us to create computer models that showed that ballast subsidence caused the streetsweeper to become stuck.
Our Virginia-based railroad injury law hired a California-based expert to prepare the computer models. Once the trial started, Amtrak and CSX acknowledged that our lawyer was fully licensed to represent clients in South Carolina but argued our California expert was not because he did not hold an engineering license in the state.
The railroad companies had not raised such an objection in pretrial motions. Still, the judge agreed that South Carolina’s recently amended laws regarding who could be recognized as an expert in state courts compelled him to grant Amtrak and CSX’s request to throw out our computer models.
We appealed that determination and convinced the Supreme Court of South Carolina to reverse the trial judge. The justices ordered a second trial to answer the question of whether Amtrak and CSX should compensate our railroad injury client.
The railroad companies, however, argued that the new trial should focus only on whether they could be found liable. They claimed that because our client had already received $577,000 from two insurance companies, the injured passenger train engineer was owed nothing else. The companies even went so far as to state that they were parties to the first payment even though the first trial judge had explicitly written that the rail corporations would pay none of the jury’s award.
Unbelievably, the second trial judge agreed with the railroad companies, which forced our railroad injury attorney to file a second appeal with the South Carolina Supreme Court. That was refused, but before a third appeal and also before the start of the second trial, the railroad companies finally agreed to negotiate a settlement on all the claims made by our client. The case concluded several years after the 2001 derailment. The substantial amounts paid by Amtrak and CSX remain confidential.
Some cases become legal wars. This should not have been one of those, but our Virginia-based railroad injury law firm was able to prevail on behalf of our client. No matter how long and hard we must fight a claim brought under the provisions of the Federal Employers Liability Act, we will do so.
Courts: South Carolina circuit courts and Supreme Court of South Carolina
Staff: Richard N. Shapiro, attorney