The recent death of a 49-year-old man while walking on railroad tracks near San Diego's Torrey Pines State Beach highlights the danger that pedestrians face whenever they cross tracks or use them as a walking path. The family of Richard North, who died after being struck by an Amtrak locomotive, must be experiencing unimaginable grief as the result of this tragic accident. Condolences and sympathy are due to those who knew, cared about, and loved Mr. North.
The fatal collision calls attention to a regrettably common problem. According to news reports, a pedestrian or car is struck by a train every three hours in the United States. In the past three months, five people have been killed by trains in San Diego County. The Federal Railroad Administration reports that pedestrians account for the majority of fatalities caused by these collisions.
Is Amtrak liable?
The facts surrounding Mr. North's death are not yet clear. Media reports indicate that he was walking along the tracks in the company of two other people. Those individuals apparently became aware of the train in time to leave the tracks. Why Mr. North did not do so may not be known until the National Transportation Safety Board completes an investigation.
Whether Amtrak has any responsibility for Mr. North's death cannot be determined until all the facts are known. A railroad's liability for an accident depends upon a number of factors. Railroads are subject to extensive federal regulation that is supplemented by state laws. Those regulations govern equipment and track maintenance and procedures for operating a train. If a violation of any of those regulations contributes to an accident, the violation usually gives rise to liability. If that happens, the railroad has a duty to compensate the person who was injured or killed.
Railroads also have a duty to exercise care to prevent foreseeable accidents. If it is reasonable to anticipate the occurrence of an accident, the failure to take reasonable steps to prevent the accident is negligent. A negligent act or failure to act that is a substantial cause of an injury or death usually makes the railroad responsible for compensating the victim or the victim's surviving family members.
Questions that will need to be resolved include:
- At what speed was the train operating? Trains cannot stop quickly. Any increase in speed also increases stopping distances. If the train was exceeding the speed limit established for that area of the track, the speed might explain why Mr. North did not react in time to move out of the train's way.
- Were the operator and other individuals in the locomotive paying close attention to the possibility that pedestrians would be on the tracks? Were they distracted by activity within the locomotive? News reports suggest that people commonly cross the tracks to reach the beach. Awareness of that possibility should lead to an operator's heightened vigilance as the train passes through that area.
- Did any health conditions or other issues impair the ability of the operator to drive the train safely?
- Did the operator have a clear view or was visibility impaired by the railroad's failure to remove overhanging branches or other obstructions?
- When did the operator sound the horn? Witnesses say the horn blew, but did the operator activate the horn as soon as the presence of pedestrians on the tracks should have been clear?
- When did the operator activate the brakes? Should the operator have activated the brakes earlier?
- Did any defects in the braking system contribute to the accident?
- Did inadequate maintenance of the tracks or roadbed slow the train's ability to stop and thus contribute to the accident?
- Were adequate warning signs posted instructing pedestrians to stay off the tracks?
- Knowing that pedestrians frequently cross the tracks to access the beach, should the railroad have erected a barrier to keep pedestrians away from the tracks?
Questions about the victim's own negligence will also need to be resolved. The primary question will be why Mr. North was unaware of the train or unable to leave the tracks when his companions were able to move to a safe position.
What can the victim's family do?
If the evidence demonstrates that the accident was caused by Amtrak's violation of a rule or regulation or by the negligence of Amtrak or the train's operator, Mr. North's family would be entitled to seek compensation in a wrongful death lawsuit. Under California law, a wife or domestic partner and minor children would have the right to sue. Other relatives may have the right to sue if they depended on the deceased for support or would inherit property if they had died without a will. By asking a few questions, a personal injury lawyer can quickly determine which members of a victim's family can sue for wrongful death.
Even if the accident victim was partially responsible for the accident, their family will likely be entitled to compensation under California's comparative negligence law, provided the railroad was even slightly responsible for the death. The compensation they would be entitled to receive is reduced by the percentage of fault that is attributed to the victim.
Losses that family members can expect to recover in a wrongful death action can include:
- Lost financial income that the deceased would have used to support the family member.
- The value of gifts and other financial contributions the family member would have received from the deceased.
- The value of any household services that the victim provided.
- Compensation for the untimely loss of the victim's love and companionship.
- In the case of a domestic partner or spouse, compensation for the loss of enjoyment of sexual relations.
- In the case of a child, compensation for the loss of training and guidance the victim would have provided.
A San Diego wrongful death attorney that has experience with train accidents can evaluate cases like Mr. North's to determine whether the railroad has a responsibility to compensate the victim's family and if so, the amount of compensation that is appropriate under the circumstances. Since train accident claims require a thorough investigation of the facts, it is important to contact a lawyer quickly, while witnesses still have a fresh memory of the events that occurred.
Those whose loved ones have died and would like to obtain a free consultation from experienced California wrongful death attorneys can call (714) 898-4444 to receive assistance.