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The 7 Most-Common Types of Railroad Injury and Illness Cases: We Handle Them All

More than 35 years of advising and representing railroad employees in injury, occupational illness and wrongful death cases has taught our attorneys a lot about how to hold negligent rail corporations accountable. Based in Virginia, we have helped clients in North Carolina, West Virginia, the District of Columbia and nearly every state south of Pennsylvania and east of the Mississippi River.

We bring most of our cases under provisions of the Federal Employers Liability Act. In addition to FELA litigation against corporation such as CSX, Norfolk Southern and Amtrak, we pursue compensation for clients under a range of whistleblower laws and general personal injury and wrongful death statutes. The majority of cases for which we have secured settlements or won jury awards fall into the following seven categories:

  • Slips and Falls While Boarding or Exiting Locomotives and Rail Cars
  • Lifting, Turning and Tripping Injuries
  • Injuries While Operating Switches
  • Locomotive and Rail Car Derailments
  • Crashes at Railroad Crossings
  • Respiratory Tract Damage, Skin Burns and Cancers From Exposures to Chemicals and Other Hazardous Materials
  • Diseases Such as Mesothelioma That Are Related to On-the-Job Exposures to Asbestos

This is far from every type of railroad injury, illness or wrongful death case. We have helped victims of electric shocks, crush injuries, defective shop equipment and fires. Also, while, we can never guarantee a successful outcome for any client, we always commit to working as hard as we can for everyone who trusts us to take up their cause.

Slips and Falls While Boarding or Exiting Locomotives and Rail Cars

The U.S. government passed the first national standards for railroad worker safety in 1893. The very straightforwardly titled Safety Appliance Act required rail companies that operated across state lines to ensure that all its locomotives and rail cars had functioning couplers, working brakes and adequate handholds and platforms for workers.

The Locomotive Inspection Act came along two decades later, requiring railroad corporations to focus on engine maintenance and the protection of crew members engaged in operating trains. Both laws remain in effect, and violations of either often lie at the heart of FELA cases.

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For instance, our Virginia-based personal injury law firm represented an engineer who suffered disabling shoulder and knee injuries after a handhold for a locomotive stairway broke loose. Evidence collected during the investigation into our client’s injury claim showed that the railroad company knew the handhold had rusted and needed to be replaced but failed to replace the damaged safety device.

Lifting, Turning and Tripping Injuries

Rail yards, track beds and railway stations can be as dangerous as moving trains. Trip, slip and fall hazards exist everywhere. In one of our cases, a track maintenance worker was forced into early retirement after losing his footing on uneven ballast.

Ballast is the crushed rock or other material the supports rails and ties. Recent rains had carried away enough ballast to form a hole in which our client caught his foot and turned his knee so forcefully that several ligaments and tendons tore. His employer knew of the potential danger but did not take sufficient remedial actions to ensure missing ballast was replaced and properly levelled.

At other times, a railroad employee or contractor finds themselves in the worst place at the worst time. Cargo or tools fall from above and strike individuals who never recognized their danger. A service vehicle or insufficient secured rail car runs out of control. Or, in a case we assisted with in Florida, a crane operator loses control of their load.

In that instance, a bridge beam swung into the leg of our client and caused irreparable damage to the man’s foot, shin and knee. In addition to making sure that the construction worker would have his medical bills paid and lost income replaced, the case affirmed the principle that FELA protections extend to all people working with, if not explicitly for, rail corporations.

A final consideration for railroad workers is that they face many of the risks for work-related injuries as do workers in any employment setting. This was probably never clearer than in the case of the Amtrak employee who suffered permanent back injuries when forced to lift more than 75 pounds repeatedly and without assistance.

Injuries While Operating Switches

A growing majority of track switches between stations and outside of rail yards can be operated remotely from a locomotive or central location. Increasing automation still leaves untold numbers of switches that must be opened and closed by hand. Each manual switching procedure comes with a significant risk for injury.

Manually opening or closing a switch requires bending, twisting and, often, a good deal of physical effort. Parts rust or go missing. Old-style ground-levels switches have not been replaced with raised switches, as has become industry standard. Springs prove more powerful than muscles.

Sometimes, newly installed equipment requires updated operating procedures of which workers are not apprised. And, again, track ballast can shift or subside, making the switch operator’s footing unsure.

For any of these reasons, railroad workers can suffer shoulder, knee, back and hand injuries. Federal regulations dictate inspections and maintenance for track switches, but those rules often go unheeded.

Succeeding with a FELA injury claim following a switch malfunction can be difficult. The incidents are rarely witnessed by coworkers. This makes accessing and expertly analyzing the equipment, maintenance records and operations manuals absolutely essential. An attorney who has extensive experience advising and representing railroad workers will know how to acquire and inspect the necessary evidence.

Locomotive and Rail Car Derailments

Derailments can result from collisions, operator error or track defects. Figuring out why a locomotive or rail cars went off the rails and one or more people suffered injuries or got killed is never easy.

Did a dispatcher confuse the scheduling? Was an engineer distracted by a smartphone or impaired by drugs and alcohol? Was track maintenance ignored? Did crew members exceed posted speed limits on open track or in the rail yard? Was a key track switch negligently left open or closed?

The one thing that is always clear is that a properly routed, scheduled and professionally operated train will almost never crash or derail unless someone somewhere along the line commits a preventable error. The only exceptions to this involve natural disaster and unexpectedly violent storms.

Knowing one or more errors were made while not knowing when or how an error occurred makes derailments another type of FELA case that requires obtaining and poring over extensive electronic and paper documentation. Recordings of radio communications can also prove invaluable, as can testimony from everyone potentially involved in the decisions that led up to the derailment.

Crashes at Railroad Crossings

Any time a road or pedestrian and bike path crosses a set of railroad tracks, the risk for a serious or deadly collision exists. Industrial sidings at warehouses and manufacturing plants, rail yards, and rural crossing on private property or government-owned land are particularly dangerous. Railroad bridges regularly prove risky for hikers and sightseers, as well.

Preventing a crash at a railroad crossing is as simple as keeping vehicles and people out of the path of moving trains. Rail corporations and government officials understand this, which is why regulations and operating procedures require things like gates, warning lights, rumble strips, signs called crossbucks and the sounding of horns at ground-level crossings.

Those safety devices and best practices do not always work as designed, however. Determining why a collision at a railroad crossing occurred is never easy. When investigating such as case for either a railroad employee client or a member of the general public, our train crash attorneys look into issues like

  • Did lights and gates control the railroad crossing?
  • Did bell-ringing sounds accompany the lowering of gates and the activation of warning lights?
  • Was there anything besides a crossbuck at the railroad crossing?
  • Was the train horn blown in a timely manner?
  • Was something like vegetation blocking the sight lines of drivers and pedestrians?
  • Were two trains approaching the crossing from opposite directions?

We will also check electronic crossing control records and Federal Railroad Administration reports for evidence of earlier crashes at the relevant crossing. And, of course, we will work to identify and interview witnesses to discover, for instance, whether the train crew sounded the train horn as they approached the crossing. Last, the event recorder (i.e., “black box”) on each locomotive provides a wealth of information on the train’s speed, braking, throttle position and horn activation.

Respiratory Tract Damage, Skin Burns and Cancers From Exposures to Chemicals and Other Hazardous Materials

Train crews and workers in rail yards breathe in diesel fumes and other toxic and cancer-causing substances on a daily basis. This gives rail corporations a legally enforceable duty to minimize exposures. The federal Locomotive Inspection Act imposes a number of regulations concerning the release of chemicals and toxic substances from train engines. Upgrading engines, installing improved venting and filtering systems, replacing old batteries, providing frequent breaks in areas where concentrations of toxins and carcinogens are low, and issuing and requiring masks or respirators are all ways rail corporations can meet those duties.

A separate set of dangers exist when trains transport liquid chemicals and poisonous gases. Crashes, derailments, punctures, leaks, fires and explosions endanger crew members and residents of communities in which those preventable accidents occur. One of the worst examples of this comes from a Norfolk Southern derailment in Graniteville, South Carolina. Our firm’s attorney proudly advised several victims of that tragedy.

Numerous federal regulations apply to the transport of toxic chemicals, radioactive materials and the like. Careful analysis by an experienced FELA attorney is necessary to determine just which regulations apply to which circumstances.

Diseases Such as Mesothelioma That Are Related to On-the-Job Exposures to Asbestos

Particulates in the air on trains, around rail cars and in machine shops wind up in railroad workers lungs. Those microscopic bits of asbestos, silica, ash and pieces of metal spend decades in the employees’ bodies, doing physical damage and triggering the growth of cancer cells.

Disabling and fatal diseases such as asbestosis, silicosis and mesothelioma are far more common among retired railroad workers than among members of the general public. Spouses and children of railroad workers also have increased risk for those conditions because their loved ones brought disease-causing fibers home on their clothes.

Succeeding with a FELA claim arising from the diagnosis of a respiratory disease or a cancer such as mesothelioma requires showing that exposures to a dangerous substance occurred on the job. Other potential causes such as cigarette smoking may also need to be ruled out. CT scans can show the different kinds of damage done by different substances. Corporate records and witness testimony can verify workplace exposures. An experienced FELA attorney will work to gather and substantiate such evidence.

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Richard N. Shapiro
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Personal Injury & Wrongful Death Lawyer Serving Va Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake & all of Virginia