In early December, a New York railroad commuter train jumped the tracks after going into a curve at 82 m.p.h. – nearly three times the 30 m.p.h. speed limit. After the crash, many placed all the blame on the train’s engineer. The Engineer’s lawyer stated that he experienced a nod or daze, almost like road fatigue or the phenomenon sometimes called “highway hypnosis.” The Engineer says he remembers “operating the train, coming to a section where the track was still clear – then all of a sudden, feeling something was wrong and hitting the brakes.” When the train derailed, more than 60 people were injured, 11 of them critically.
Defective products lie at the heart of product liability cases. In this case, a safety system designed to keep an engineer alert was not installed in the car in which the Engineer was controlling the train. A “dead-man’s pedal” is a pedal in the train’s car that must be depressed or the train will automatically slow down. Trains can also have alarms, sometimes called “alerters,” which sound if the engineer’s controls have not been moved within a certain timeframe. If the engineer does not respond, such as by pressing a button, the brakes automatically operate. A lack of such technology in the Metro-North train could certainly give rise to a viable product liability claim. Most safety experts agree that this “positive train control” was available and should have been installed on trains years ago. Metro-North failed to use the technology, which has been available for 25 years, to take out the human error factor. Congress has already ordered that commuter and freight railroads must install this type technology, which uses electronics to monitor trains’ positions and speed and stop derailments, by the end of 2015. But this deadline is no excuse for railroads dragging their feet on installing available safety technology. There have already been nine lawsuits filed against Metro-North arising out of the crash. Hopefully, this litigation will serve as an incentive for railroads to move forward and install the technology that has been available to them for years. Doing so will make trains much safer.
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