Railroad Liability For Train/Motor Vehicle Collisions At Railroad Crossings

Railroad crossings are inherently dangerous places.  Severe injuries, even death, can result when a train hits a motor vehicle at a railroad crossing.  Railroads are often sued for such train crossing accidents.

The primary claim against a railroad in a crossing accident will concern the signage and control devices at the crossing. Iowa law only mandates one type of sign at a railroad crossing – The “cross buck” sign that states “RAILROAD CROSSING.” That’s all that’s required. A railroad that fails to place such a sign at a railroad crossing is considered automatically negligent in any motor vehicle accidents that occur at the crossing.

A railroad may be, but isn’t necessarily, negligent if it decides not to do more than erect the “RAILROAD CROSSING” sign. A railroad can be required to do more, and can be negligent for failing to do so, if the crossing is deemed “extrahazardous” or “ultrahazardous.” In a civil lawsuit arising from a railroad crossing accident, the jury will usually be told that “[u]nless a railroad crossing is extrahazardous, all that is required as a warning to travelers are signs and sounding the train horn and bell. In deciding whether the crossing has been proved to be extrahazardous, you may consider unusual conditions like heavy traffic, anything that would interfere with visibility, and similar circumstances. If a crossing is extrahazardous, and the railroad knows or reasonably should know of the danger, the railroad must have either electronic flashing signals or a flagman there to warn travelers.”

As noted in the above quote, another area of liability for railroads in crossing accident cases is the train’s signaling. Trains’ signals are horns and bells. In most instances, a train is required to sound its horn one thousand feet before a railroad crossing is reached. The train’s bell must then be rung continuously until the train is through the crossing. A railroad is automatically negligent for a crossing accident if the train operator fails to sound the horn when required or fails to continuously ring the bell when required.

Some other issues that can arise in a crossing accident, but that aren’t necessarily limited to crossings, include the train’s speed, the train's lighting, and the condition of the track.  Railroads are required to exercise ordinary care as to the speed of their trains. An argument in some railroad crossing cases is that the train was moving too fast. Trains must also have a very bright light on the lead car. And railroads must make sure that the track is in good repair so that vehicles can safely cross it and so that there are no views obstructed by vegetation or other objects. Obstructed views can be a basis for railroad liability in crossing accident cases.

Finally, the conduct of train operators, other than sounding necessary warnings and the speed of the train, can also lead to railroad liability for a crossing accident. Train operators cannot just blindly barrel down the track no matter how much they’re sounding the horn and bell and no matter what kind of warnings and signals are at each crossing. Train operators have an obligation to keep a proper lookout when the train is moving. A train operator’s failure to do so can create liability for negligence against the railroad.

This is just a broad summary of the ways in which a railroad can be liable for a crossing collision. The questions can be a little more complicated and often require expert testimony to answer. Each railroad crossing accident case presents its own unique set of facts that generate a substantial investigation to determine all the possible bases of liability against the railroad.

Harley Erbe