Roughly six months ago, there was a tragic train accident between a Metrolink train and a Union Pacific freight train, as a result of which there were several train passenger fatalities, and many others who suffered severe personal injuries. As the investigation of this train crash unfolds, many disturbing facts about the conduct of the train operator and his supervisors suggest that they were grossly negligent, and that their unsafe behavior was a substantial factor, or in legal terms, a proximate cause, of this fatal train crash.


Much of these facts have come to light in public hearings investigating the train accident. Apparently, the train engineer was regularly allowing children into the train engine cabs, failed to verify switch signals, and was habitually using his cell phone to send text messages. From the facts gleaned so far, the engineer missed a red signal, as a result of which the passenger train crashed directly into the freight train, all because he was in the middle of sending a text message from his mobile phone.


Not surprisingly, the defendants in this action have engaged in a great deal of finger pointing, each claiming that the other bears responsibility for the accident. And this is not mere posturing; the potential exposure for the ultimately liable defendants could exceed $200 million.


At this point, you might be inclined to ask the following question: Granted, this sounds like a terrible accident. But what did the train companies do wrong that would warrant them being held liable for their engineer’s negligence? The answer is dual. First, there is traditional negligence, and second, there is a legal theory called negligent hiring and retention. Regarding negligence, the plaintiffs are presumably contending that the employers were negligent by failing to have in place sufficient safety policies or procedures that would render it impossible for a train engineer to be text messaging rather than adhering to train signals. Given this particular engineer’s penchant for disregarding his job duties, it is also being claimed that these companies were negligent in failing to terminate his services in a timely fashion, when it should have been apparent that his egregious and reckless conduct was risking the lives of their passengers.


Presently, the passenger train company Metrolink is facing over 100 claims resulting from the train crash. Ironically, the train company reduced its insurance coverage a few years ago out of their belief that the risk of a tragic accident such as this did not justify paying the extra insurance premium. (Oops.)

The moral of the story: just because a company says that they followed all appropriate guidelines regarding their employees, don’t be too quick to believe that this statement is significant. There’s a decent chance that these standards are either grossly inadequate or ignored.

Jonathan Cooper
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Non-Compete, Trade Secret and School Negligence Lawyer