Not long ago, the San Jose Mercury News reported that four Bay Area train collisions occurred in the same evening. Caltrain, Amtrak's Capitol Corridor train, and a VTA light rail train were all involved in collisions within minutes of each other, while a pedestrian was killed on the BART tracks about two hours later.

The first collision occurred in San Jose, when a VTA train struck and killed a pedestrian. The second occurred in Santa Clara, where an Amtrak train hit a car. Fortunately, the driver experienced only minor injuries.

The third incident involved a Caltrain that struck a man at the San Mateo station. The man was hospitalized but survived. No explanation was provided for the man’s presence on the tracks.

A pedestrian was also the victim of the final accident on October 13. He was standing on the tracks at the San Bruno BART station when he was hit and killed by a train bound for Pittsburg/Bay Point.

Another cluster of train accidents occurred in February, involving a pedestrian in the Palo Alto station, a woman who died when a train hit her car in Menlo Park, and a man who was killed in a tunnel in San Francisco. More recently, on November 16, another pedestrian died after she was hit by a train at the Santa Clara station. All of those incidents involved Caltrain.

Liability for train accidents

The size and weight of trains makes them a deadly force when they come into contract with cars or people. Their mass also makes it difficult for a train to stop quickly.

Some train accidents are clearly the fault of the person who is hit by the train. Accidents that occur because a pedestrian is walking on railroad tracks sometimes fall into that category. In other instances, however, the train operator shares responsibly for the pedestrian’s injury or death.

For example, when a train company fails to take reasonable precautions to prevent pedestrians from wandering onto train tracks, the railway might be held liable. In cases where a train company knows that people routinely cross tracks at a particular location and takes no action to warn them of oncoming trains, courts have approved jury verdicts holding the train company responsible. In addition, if the train was speeding or violated other safety regulations, the train company might be liable for the accident.

Accidents at railroad crossings may also be the fault of the train operator under certain circumstances. For example, if no warning signals were present at the crossing, if the warnings were inadequate, if the train failed to blow its horn as required by law, or if signals or barriers malfunctioned, the train company may be deemed to be responsible for collisions with cars and pedestrians in the crossing.

Injuries to train passengers

In some cases, the victims of a train accident are passengers who are riding on the train. Derailments and collisions can cause passengers to experience serious injuries.

When two trains collide, courts will generally hold one or more railroad companies responsible for the accident. Collisions are usually the result of human error or preventable mechanical errors.

Trains also derail because of poor track maintenance, improper switch alignment, operation of the train at an excessive speed, and the failure to remove obstacles from the tracks. Derailments can be catastrophic.

Congress chose to protect the railroad industry from the consequences of its own negligence by setting limits on the amount that a railway is required to pay for a single accident. Those caps usually come into play in derailments, where a large number of people are injured in the same accident. The caps on damages typically have no impact on accidents involving one or two victims.

The need for legal advice

A number of procedural hurdles need to be jumped when bringing a claim against a train operator. Procedures vary depending on whether the train is operated by a government agency or is privately owned.

It is important to seek prompt legal advice from an experienced personal injury attorney if you are injured, or if a loved one is killed, in a train accident. An investigation should begin immediately and any required notices should be timely filed. Waiting too long can cause you to lose your opportunity to receive compensation.