in Los Angeles at night a vehicle is driving on a road a longside a train coming

Who is liable when a train hits a car stuck on the tracks?

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

We all have seen those videos on Youtube of a car being stuck on the train tracks and the train doesn’t have enough time to stop and the vehicle gets hit. Determining the liability in a scenario like that involves a complex analysis of various factors. Liability can depend on several key elements:

1. Driver Behavior: The primary aspect often examined is the behavior of the driver of the car. If the car was on the tracks due to driver negligence, such as ignoring warning signals, trying to beat the train, or driving under the influence, the driver (or the driver’s insurance) may be found liable for the accident.

2. Train Operator Conduct: The conduct of the train operator is also scrutinized. Train operators are expected to follow safety protocols, including speed limits and being attentive to obstacles on the tracks. If the operator was negligent, for example, by not adhering to speed limits or failing to take appropriate action upon seeing the car, the train company might share in the liability.

3. Railroad Crossing Functionality: The condition and functionality of the railroad crossing signals and barriers are crucial. If the crossing equipment was malfunctioning or poorly maintained, and this contributed to the incident, the entity responsible for the crossing (which could be a railroad company or a government body) might be liable.

4. Visibility and Warning Systems: Along with the railroad crossing functionality an adequate line of site and warning systems at the crossing can impact liability. If the crossing was inadequately marked or if sight lines were obstructed, contributing to the driver’s inability to see or hear an approaching train, this might shift some liability to the entity responsible for the crossing’s design and maintenance.

5. Emergency Response: In some cases, if a driver becomes stuck on the tracks and makes an emergency call or otherwise alerts authorities, and the response is inadequate or delayed, this could factor into determining liability.

6. Vehicle Malfunction: If the car was stuck due to a mechanical malfunction, liability might involve the vehicle manufacturer or a mechanic who recently worked on the car, depending on the circumstances of the malfunction.

7. Comparative Negligence: In many jurisdictions, the concept of comparative negligence is used to determine liability. This means that if both parties are partly at fault, liability can be shared according to the degree of each party’s negligence.

8. Local and State Laws: Laws vary by jurisdiction and can significantly impact how liability is assessed in such incidents.

In accidents involving a train and a car, multiple parties might share liability, including the driver, the train operator, the railroad company, manufacturers, and government entities. Each case is unique and requires a detailed investigation to determine liability. Often, legal professionals and accident reconstruction experts are involved in this process to thoroughly examine all the aspects of the incident.

How common is it for a car to be stuck on train tracks?

While not an everyday occurrence, cars getting stuck on train tracks happens with enough frequency to be a significant safety concern. The exact frequency varies depending on factors like the region, the number of level crossings, and traffic conditions. Below we explain more factors that contribute to the likelihood of such incidents:

1. Number of Level Crossings: Areas with a high number of level crossings naturally have a higher incidence of such events. This is especially true in urban areas where roads and train tracks often intersect.

2. Traffic Conditions: In heavily congested areas, the likelihood of vehicles getting stuck on tracks increases, particularly during peak traffic times.

3. Driver Behavior: Incidents are more common in areas where there is a history of risky driver behavior, such as trying to beat the train or driving around lowered gates.

4. Visibility and Signage: Poorly marked or low-visibility crossings can contribute to more incidents, especially in conditions of bad weather or at night.

5. Vehicle Reliability: Regions with a higher proportion of older or poorly maintained vehicles might see more instances of cars breaking down on tracks.

6. Public Awareness and Education: The level of public awareness and education about railroad crossing safety can also impact the frequency that these occur. Areas with effective safety campaigns might experience fewer incidents because their community is more aware of this possible road hazard.

7. Railroad Crossing Infrastructure: The design and maintenance of railroad crossings also play a role. Crossings with better safety features, like gates, lights, and audible signals, tend to have fewer incidents.

While it’s difficult to provide exact numbers without specific data, these factors indicate that while not a daily occurrence, the risk is significant enough to warrant continuous safety efforts and public awareness campaigns. In conclusion we will look at The Federal Railroad Administration in the United States statistical data  related to railroad crossing incidents and work on improving safety measures.

Statistical data related to railroad crossing incidents from the Federal Railroad Administration in the United States

In 2022, there were 2,199 highway-rail grade crossing collisions reported in the United States, resulting in 272 fatalities and 819 injuries. The majority of these incidents occurred in specific states. Texas leading in the number of collisions. Following Texas was California, Illinois, Florida, and Indiana that had the highest numbers of collisions. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) statistics also reveal that railroad crossing incidents are the second leading cause of rail-related deaths in America.

Furthermore, the FRA is actively engaged in research and development to enhance safety at highway-rail grade crossings. This includes various technological and educational initiatives aimed at reducing accidents and incidents. The research is organized into areas such as Grade Crossing Technology, Grade Crossing Pedestrian Safety, Grade Crossing Modeling and Simulation, and Grade Crossing and Trespass Outreach/Education.

These efforts are part of a broader commitment to improve railroad safety and reduce the number of accidents and fatalities associated with rail transport. The focus on technology, pedestrian safety, and public education demonstrates a comprehensive approach to addressing the complex challenges of railway safety.

For more detailed information and statistics, you can refer to Operation Lifesaver’s website and the Federal Railroad Administration’s research page on Highway-Rail Grade Crossing and Trespassing.

At J&Y Law Firm, we recommend seeking professional legal advice if your vehicle was stuck on a train track. For further guidance or to discuss your specific case, contact J&Y Law Firm at (877) 426-6580, and our team of experienced attorneys will be happy to assist you.

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.