Dangerous Rail Cargo: Who’s Responsible for Injuries?

Cargo owners, product manufacturers, shippers, and forwarding agencies can be held liable for injuries caused by the transport of hazardous materials. These entities have a duty of care to railroad workers and the general public to ensure that cargo is transported safely and in accordance with established regulations. When any one of these entities fails in the duty of care, serious personal injuries, wrongful deaths, and significant property damage can occur.

The Need for Increased Transparency, New Rules, & Effective Oversight

Lack of transparency remains an issue in regard to many types of hazardous cargo. For instance, increased rail transport of petroleum products led the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to update rules related to the transport of this potentially hazardous cargo.

Under the updated rules, train speeds, railway routing, and emergency management procedures were strengthened. These rules received a boost in 2015 when the DOT issued new specifications for the construction and operation of crude oil tank cars.

However, there is still considerable leeway in the application and oversight of these rules. Railway accidents in North Dakota, Canada, and elsewhere have demonstrated that railways continue to operate under a shroud of secrecy that puts railroad workers and the general public at risk.

Alarmingly, even under the updated rules, railways are still allowed to factor in cost-effectiveness and customer preferences when making their transportation decisions. Even more alarming is that the railways are not required to receive approval from town managers, fire chiefs, etc. before transporting potentially hazardous cargo through residential areas.

Liability for Rail Accidents

Railway operators, cargo manufacturers, and shippers have a duty of care that includes taking preventative actions that would reduce the likelihood of an accident. This includes properly maintaining shipping containers, adequately labeling the cargo as hazardous, properly preparing explosive, corrosive, or flammable cargo for transport. Railway operators and shippers must also properly secure the cargo on the train in a manner that meets the applicable safety standards.

This duty of care also includes the mitigation of hazards and emergency response should an accident take place. For instance, responding promptly to an accident such as a train derailment with properly trained personnel equipped with the appropriate containment measures. When any one of these entities fails to adhere to established standards and regulations, a railroad injury lawyer can pursue them for their negligent actions and the damages that result.