Minnesota’s Train Accident Lawyers

Train and railroad crossing collision cases are very different from other automobile collision cases. And, while many of the laws applicable to standard car accident cases are also applicable in collisions involving trains, train collision cases also have their own particular laws, applicable only in the railroad context.

The United States Supreme Court’s decision in Norfolk Southern Ry. Co. v. Shanklin, caused significant changes in railroad litigation. The Shanklin court held that federal regulations governing the installation and adequacy of warning and protective devices at railroad crossings pre-empt state tort claims concerning a railroad’s failure to maintain adequate warning devices at crossings, where federal funds have participated in the installation of the devices. As such, Shanklin has virtually done away with the opportunity to offer evidence that the railroad should have been required to erect signals, lights, and gates as opposed to just crossbuck or passive crossing signs. Despite this change in the law, claims against the railroad for negligent maintenance of a crossing, for allowing vegetation to grow up on the railroad’s right-of-way and obstruct the view of both motorists and the train crew, or for constructing a “humped” crossing, or for otherwise for maintaining a dangerous crossing are not pre-empted, and can be successfully litigated if handled correctly.

Railroad crossing collisions don’t just “happen,” and rarely occur simply because of inattention on the part of the motorist. Instead, such accidents are usually related to some negligence on the part of the railroad, with the main causes being obstruction of view and inadequate crossing construction, including construction of a humped crossing. (A “humped” crossing is a crossing at which the railroad bed is higher than the road it is crossing, causing a hump for the motorist to cross.) Train collisions usually occur at open crossings, or crossings with passive signage—that is, warnings of a railroad crossing as evidenced only by crossbuck signs posted on either side of the railroad tracks that identify it as a public crossing.

Typically state statutes require the railroad to sound warnings, usually a quarter of a mile before reaching the crossing and continuing on through the crossing. Violations of a state’s precautions act, or other statute requiring the sounding of an audible signal within a quarter of a mile of a crossing, are strong bases for liability, and are often involved in crossing collisions.

When evaluating liability in a train accident case, it is important to keep the following considerations in mind:

(1) The railway tracks cross a public road.
(2) The public has just as much right to cross a railroad track as that railroad has a right to traverse its rails.
(3) The railroad is granted a franchise or a license for a charter right-of-way from the public, and with that license come two basic obligations of the railroad:

(a) to maintain a safe crossing, and
(b) to operate trains through the community at a reasonable rate of speed considering all existing circumstances.

For a discussion of Minnesota’s no fault system and other considerations relevant to standard car accident cases, please visit our car accident page.