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Rick Shapiro
Rick Shapiro
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Hold CSX Liable for Fatal Megabus Accident

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On first read, the headline seems to make no sense. But when one considers the reasoning of a New York (NY) criminal court judge in acquitting a bus driver of four counts of criminally negligent homicide, one can only conclude that a railroad bridge owned by CSX did more to create the situation in which passengers died than did the man behind the wheel.

Allow me to provide some background on this terrible bus accident.

On September 11, 2010, an off-course Philadelphia-to-Toronto double-decker Megabus coach ran into a bridge across the Onondaga Lake Parkway in Salina, NY, just outside of Syracuse. Four passengers lost their lives in the bus crash, and several people — including the driver — were badly injured.

The railroad overpass has a clearance of just 10 feet, 9 inches, far too low to accommodate a large tour bus, almost all commercial trucks and most construction vehicles.

Later investigations revealed that the bus operator was fairly new to the job, had never been on the parkway, missed or ignored 13 low bridge warnings before the accident and was using a personal GPS system in an effort to get off the parkway and back onto I-81, which was his intended route.

Sadly, this fatal collision with a railroad trestle seemed to be the catalyst for an explosion of deadly tour bus crashes over the next 12 months, a period that included an accident on I-95 in Caroline County, Virginia (VA), that left 4 people dead and 54 injured.

But back to the New York homicide trial: When issuing his acquittal, the judge laid principal blame on “that inherently dangerous CSX bridge." An editorial in Syracuse's Post-Standard notes three damning facts that demonstrate the judge reached the correct, if difficult verdict:

  • At least 90 other tall vehicles have struck the overpass since 1987.
  • A grand jury recommended, as one option, that CSX raise the bridge to make driving the parkway safer.
  • CSX, which reported an effective profit of $3.4 billion in 2011, demurred from raising the overpass because doing the bridge work would cost an estimated $20 million.

The editors then wonder if the railroad corporation would rather face the possibility of civil lawsuits than go to the expense of making road and rail conditions safer. As a personal injury and wrongful death attorney who has had to take CSX to court many times on behalf of rail employees, I can answer the Post-Standard with a resounding YES.

My Virginia railroad injury attorney colleagues and I have also documented how Class I railroads — particularly Amtrak, BNSF, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, CSX, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific — are fighting federal requirements to install crash- and derailment-prevention technologies. The companies' almost sole objection is cost. Their calculus shows them that settling individual cases is more cost-effective than protecting people from potential injuries or deaths.

Megabus and the acquitted driver continue to face civil lawsuits from injured passengers and family members of the deceased. In light of the judge's acquittal statement and the railroad's proven disregard for individuals' lives and health, CSX should be added to the list of potential defendants in all civil actions brought by survivors and those injured in the bus wreck.

EJL

About the Editors: The Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.

1 Comment

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  1. Truckie D says:
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    Great story Rick!

    In my experience, just about the only low clearances left anymore are railroad bridges. For example, in Chicago, it’s so bad that there’s a number truck drivers can call to route them in and out of the city avoiding all of the low bridges. Why haven’t these bridges been raised to at least the statutory height of 13’6″?? In my opinion, it sure seems to just be all about the Benjamins.

    A while back on TV, there was a show (the name escapes me) that created a crash mitigation system for trains. It had airbags to soften the blow, and a pusher system that would push a car off of the tracks, out of the way of a train. While rather crude, it did work. It looked like it could be turned into an actual product for a very modest cost in R&D. So, why isn’t it happening?

    As long as it’s cheaper to settle than fix, then it seems that’s what is going to continue to happen.

    While many may rail (pun intended) at attorneys over what seem to many to be exorbitant settlements, the fact is that those same settlements have been responsible for a great many safety improvements in many industries, and particularly my own, the trucking industry. Unless it’s cheaper to fix than settle, then we’re likely to see more of the same. So, sharpen up your pencils guys, and get rid of the low bridges!

    td