Each year, over 500 people lose their lives in railroad collisions. Many accidents occur at highway grade crossings, some of which are not well protected.
Protection at grade crossings can consist of as little as wooden “crossbucks,” the familiar “X” design, to automatic gates and lights. Some crossings with a history of accidents can even be closed permanently.
The dangers to motorists at railroad crossings are numerous, and vary from region to region. Where a crossing has only crossbucks, there is no automatic advance warning of an approaching train. Motorists can be distracted, or might not realize a train is approaching until on the crossing itself. Additionally, the trees and other shrubbery around the crossing might be poorly maintained, and many collisions have occurred when a motorist simply couldn’t see an approaching train engine.
Loud train horns and bells also let drivers know a train is approaching, but these are dependent upon the operator of the train remembering to engage the warning devices.
Some crossings have only red flashing lights, but no gates. Here again, motorists can easily miss the fact that the lights are on, depending on weather and the angle of approach to the crossing.
Finally, while gates and lights, in combination, clearly provide the highest level of protection at a crossing, accidents can occur at these as well.
Numerous deaths and serious injuries have occurred when drivers go around the lowered gates. While this is improper conduct, if gates have a history of malfunctioning by staying lowered even when a train is not approaching, motorists might assume that it’s safe to go ahead (sometimes following other vehicles around the gates).
Railroad cases are some of the most challenging cases to bring in court, and require a law firm that has substantial experience regarding the railroad industry. Oddly, one thing that makes the cases complicated is that the railroads’ claims departments go into full “defense” mode as soon as a crossing accident occurs. It is not unusual for a claims agent to board an engine and remove evidence right after a collision B even a fatal collision. Railroad claims personnel and investigators often actually remove the event recorder which is the railroad equivalent of the “black box” that airplanes have, and refuse to produce it to anyone until forced by a court to do so. Incredibly, they will also refuse to produce the train engineer to local law enforcement officials for post-accident drug or alcohol testing.
Gray, Ritter & Graham has been involved in several cases in which a railroad was sanctioned by trial courts for such evidence tampering. Federal and State judges will sometimes issue sanctions because the railroads’ practices end up depriving victims of train collisions key evidence needed to make a case.