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Is Negligence A Contributing Factor In Public Transportation Accidents?

Last September, a New Jersey Transit train crashed through a wall and into a platform at the Hoboken Terminal, killing one woman and injuring more than 100 others. The impact collapsed part of the station ceiling, causing panic and injuring commuters and train passengers. The investigation hasn’t exposed any evidence pointing to the train’s engineer being negligent, but there is some consternation about New Jersey Transit’s current federal audit.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is the government oversight agency responsible for our nation’s railroads and railroad company compliance. Since June 2016, New Jersey Transit has been under an FRA audit due to numerous discovered safety violations. While the investigation continues, many details are unavailable to the public. Some are speculating whether New Jersey Transit continued service despite known safety issues or whether the train’s engineer was negligent.

Potential Liabilities

Public transportation services adhere to common carrier law. This means public transportation vehicle operators are held to a higher duty of care than typical drivers are, because they are responsible for the safety of paying passengers. If an employee of a public transportation company is negligent and caused injuries to others, the company can be held liable. A court could also consider a public transportation company negligent due to poor maintenance or unaddressed safety violations.

When a common carrier becomes aware of a safety issue posing a potential threat to passengers and bystanders, it must take appropriate action to rectify it completely. Failing to do so in a timely manner would constitute negligence. Additionally, failing to fully train drivers and conduct thorough employee screenings may also lead to a negligence charge.

The investigation is ongoing, but early reports say the engineer operating the train at the time of the crash is not likely to have been under the influence of alcohol or illicit substances. Additionally, the driver reported he was well rested, attentive, and traveling at the appropriate speed during the approach to the station. He claims nothing seemed out of the ordinary with the track signals or train controls, and he did all the required brake tests before the trip. He recalls no details about the crash, only waking up on the floor of the train cab after the impact.

Another issue in this case is the train’s data recording system. According to reports, one of the data recorders was not functioning correctly during the accident, and the other remained inaccessible for three days after the accident. The non-functioning recording device was built in 1995. That means the train company was relying on computer hardware that was over 20 years old. The event recording systems from vehicles, such as trains and airplanes, are designed to provide details about the vehicle’s behavior in the event of an accident. This helps investigators understand how the wreck happened.

The investigation is still underway and until all the details are released, it’s unclear what measure of responsibility New Jersey Transit has in this incident. Potentially, the company could face charges if the engineer was negligent or if the company did not fully address a known safety issue. So far, there has been no evidence of any problems with the signals on the tracks leading to the station, and the driver’s memory is not a reliable source of information.

Common carriers have a duty to protect their passengers, address known hazards quickly and efficiently, and exercise reasonable care while transporting passengers. Depending on how the investigation goes, NJ Transit may be liable for the hundreds of injuries caused by the wreck, as well as a potential wrongful death claim from the family of the woman who was killed.

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