Many small towns (and even some larger ones) and country roads in Mississippi are crossed by railroad tracks. It could be said that many towns in Mississippi would not exist if not for the railroad, but the question becomes which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Perhaps the railroad came because the town was there and there was a need to transport the produce and animals produced in this rural state.
Whatever the correct history is, there is no question but that there are many railroad “grade crossings,” that is, crossings with trafficked roads in Mississippi and any time you get the juncture of civilian automotive traffic and high-speed trains, accidents will inevitably happen.
One such accident, in which I was involved as the lawyer, occurred at a small town in north Mississippi at about 11:00 p.m. on a weekend night on a paved country road. Four teenagers in an automobile and a train had the unfortunate, and deadly, circumstance of attempting occupy the same place at the same time.
Obviously, the train won. All four of the teenage boys were killed. There was no evidence of drugs, alcohol or negligence on the part of the teenage driver. The crossing was at the bottom of a hill, down a tunnel of trees, where the grade flattened out into farmland, and was protected only by lights, not lights and gates. The families of two of the boys hired me to represent them.
In investigating the accident, I found a witness, a young lady, a nurse, who came upon the accident shortly after it happened. She did what she could. Three of the boys were dead and one nearly so – he died in her arms.
When I questioned her about the crossing lights, she was unequivocal in her recollection that the lights were not flashing when she got there. Yet the train, which had by that time stopped, still occupied the crossing. In that situation, the red, flashing, warning lights should have still been operating.
Of course, by the time the police and the emergency responders arrived, the lights were operating. How could that be?
I also located an older couple that lived not far from the tracks, who recalled the night of the crash and said all they heard was the crash; that they did not hear the horn of the train before the crash. Of course, it is Mississippi law that every train blows its horn repeatedly before approaching a crossing.
Then there was the question of speed, and this train, according to its “speed-tape” was doing 59 miles per hour in a 60 miles per hour zone for the track. Of course, the speed of the train was determined by the “speed-tape” which could only be interpreted by the railroad itself.
Naturally, wrongful death litigation ensued. Long, hard, work and money intensive litigation. The railroad had the best lawyers money could buy. And the railroad has a lot of money. And political pull, as I learned. The lawyers representing the families I did not represent cut and ran. Took their money and were glad to get it.
My families were not satisfied with the offer made by the railroad, refused, along with my recommendation, and we proceeded to trial, only to be mistried by the Judge when I asked a question about the speed of the train. (Speed is not supposed to be mentioned in these cases, as train speed limits are set by the Federal Railroad Administration–understaffed, to watch over thousands of miles of sometimes deteriorating track (seen the recent cases of engineer inattention, over-speed and derailments?)
My purpose in asking the question was not exactly about the speed of the train, it was about the practice of railroads to have “speed restrictions,” that is, places where even though the train could go a certain speed it would be ordered to slow down because of automobile traffic, school buses, etc.
Eventually the case settled. For a confidential amount, of course. But I learned several important lessons about train crashes…
First, the warning lights don’t always work. This was testified to in court by the railroad’s own signal technician. The man whose job it was to go around and keep the lights working.
Secondly, engineers don’t always blow their warning horn as they should.
Thirdly, in some areas, the speed of the train is just way too high for the conditions (but, hey, the railroads got to be fast and on time, right? Money. Even at possible expense of death for those crossing the tracks.).
Fourthly, if you take on the railroad, get ready for a long, protracted legal fight and you better know what you’re doing and get the best legal experts (which I had).
Lastly, in wrongful death and personal injury cases involving railroads, no amount of money can replace those lost or compensate for the usually very serious personal injury involved.
But the law and damages, hopefully, adequate monetary compensation, is all that is allowed. So make the best of it and, if there’s a case of liability against the railroad, the experience of your lawyer makes a difference.