Fox 4 News in Kansas City ran a feature story on our clients, the family of Nikki Groves. Nikki and two others were killed at a Union Pacific Railroad crossing in Trenton, Missouri. The Union Pacific train was going nearly 60 miles per hour across the residential crossing where motor vehicle traffic could go no faster than 35 mph. The crossing was not guarded by flashing lights or gates. The railroad says it doesn’t have to pay for lights and gates and the state said it wouldn’t put the warning devices in either. At least four people have died at that crossing.
Several crashes, more near-hits and now at least four families left devastated by the deaths of their loved ones has left this rural Missouri town wondering why Union Pacific Railroad won’t take responsibility for its own railroad crossing.
Just this month UP announced it would increase its dividend to shareholder by 22% and buyback stock to raise its share price for investors. According to UP’s own analyst factbook, UP had operating revenues of more than $14 billion and operating income of nearly $3.4 billion in 2009, resulting in a 24% profit. If UP was content with a 20% profit margin, rather than a 24% profit margin, it could invest more than $500 million each year into making sure its crossings were safe.
This tragedy is made even more heartbreaking because it did not have to happen. Railroad crossing crashes are a tragic, preventable problem across the country. Railroad companies need to do more to ensure that their railroad tracks and crossing protect approaching motorists. Railroads need to start putting safety first.
Railroad companies are responsible making sure their train crossings are safe. That means the crossings have proper sight lines and visibility that allow drivers to see approaching trains, that trees and vegetation are cut back, that railroads do not park trains near the crossing (that would confuse drivers), that signals and gates are working properly, and that train crews sound a warning with the train’s horn or whistle as the train is approaching.
Missouri has been one of the top 10 deadliest states for railroad crossing crashes. But the problem is not limited to Missouri. Too many people are being killed by freight trains and passenger trains across the country because railroad companies, like Union Pacific and BNSF, refuse to take responsibility for protecting motorists from their massive trains.
In April, a young man was killed when a train struck his vehicle near Wichita, Kansas.
In March, a Baldwin City, Kansas woman was seriously injured when her vehicle was struck by a train near Wellsville, Kansas.
In February, a Casa Grande, Arizona dentist was killed and another person injured in a violent train crash near Florence, Arizona. The railroad crossing in that crash was not protected by any flashing lights or gates. It may have been difficult or even impossible for the driver to see that a train was coming.
In January, railroad crossing collision killed a woman in Gulfport, Mississippi. News reports indicated that railroad crossing was not properly designed suggested that the driver stopped at the railroad crossing, but could not see the oncoming train and began to cross as her vehicle was struck.
These train-vehicle collisions are a tragic reminder of how dangerous railroad crossings can be. In the last 10 years, there have been more than 30,000 railroad crossing accidents and more than 3,600 train accident deaths.
These train accidents can have many causes, including:
Failure of the railroad company to install proper warnings, such as lights, alarms (crossing bells) or a functioning crossing gate
Defective warnings — inoperable lights, bells or gates
Improper sight lines that prevent a vehicle’s driver from seeing an oncoming train until it is too late
Failure to properly maintain the crossing — such as allowing overgrown trees, vegetation and other foliage to obstruct or hide an oncoming train
Improperly parking a train at or near a crossing — this not only hides an oncoming train from view, but gives motorists a false sense of safety in seeing a parked train at the crossing
Failure to sound the train’s horn or whistle at or near the crossing
Other negligence that may appear on the train’s data recorder or video recorder
Railroad companies need to do more to prevent these tragic collisions that kill. Unfortunately, some railroad companies attempt to cover up their role in causing these tragedies rather than implement safety improvements to prevent them.
In October, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad was hit with a $4 million penalty — on top of a $21.6 million jury verdict — because of its "staggering" pattern of misconduct that included destroying evidence in an attempted cover-up of its role in the deaths of four young people who were killed at one of its railroad crossings.
The Court found that BNSF destroyed some evidence, fabricated other evidence, interfered with the investigation and purposefully lied and advanced misleading facts in order to conceal the truth.
Railroad companies should be held accountable for dangerous railroad crossings that injure and kill. Is there a different set of rules for railroad companies than for everyone else? Railroad companies need to stop putting profits in front safety. How many people have to die before the railroads finally accept responsibility for protecting their own railroad crossings?
Brett Emison is currently a partner at Langdon & Emison, a firm dedicated to helping injured victims across the country from their primary office near Kansas City. Mainly focusing on catastrophic injury and death cases as well as complex mass tort and dangerous drug cases, Mr. Emison often deals with automotive defects, automobile crashes, railroad crossing accidents (train accidents), trucking accidents, dangerous and defective drugs, defective medical devices.