We all saw that giant explosion caught on video from the Baltimore train crash Tuesday. Now comes the cleanup, and the big question – who is gonna pay? You better believe a team of lawyers and investigators are already working on that question. The costs of the damage and cleanup will be in the millions. And someone is going to stroke a big check at the end of the inevitable lawsuits.
Is it the truck driver? The truck company? The train company? The chemical company whose product exploded? The company who planned and maintained that crossing? (That might include the State of Maryland!) The company that worked on the truck’s brakes? Another third party who did some small act leading to the crash? There will be many possible culprits in this whodunit.
Here are the possible culprits:
The Truck Driver: It seems from the preliminary investigation that he is the most liable party. It appears he pulled in front of a train that was blowing it’s horn on a poorly marked crossing. But what if his brakes failed? What if the train wasn’t blowing it’s horn? There are any of a million things that could have happened to make this entire accident not his fault. In any event, he doesn’t have the millions of dollars it will take to pay for this mess. That is why the law makes his employer liable for damage he causes while in the course of doing his job. That legal concept is called “respondeat superior” because we lawyers still like to pull out some Latin every once in a while.
And, I should mention that the Truck Driver will have a valid Maryland Workers’ Compensation claim, even if he turns out to be the one at fault. See more about why that is so in our Free Legal Consumer Guide about Workers’ Comp on our Free Legal Advice page.
The Truck Company: Since they employed the truck driver, and he was working in the performance of his job, they will ultimately be responsible for his actions. That is “respondeat superior” in action. But they could also be negligent in many other ways. If the brakes failed, or some other mechanical problem caused this accident, then the truck may have been poorly maintained. Should they have known that? Were there any warnings? Do they inspect their own vehicles? Was the truck so noisy that the driver couldn’t hear the train horn? Was his window stuck in the up position? You can quickly see all the little nitpicky questions the attorneys will want to ask.
The Train Company: Did the engineers blow the horn, as they claim? Did they blow it at the right places as they rolled so they could give fair warning? Were they going too fast? Did they fail to stop when they should have? Even if they couldn’t stop that quickly, would a slower speed at impact have resulted in less chance of the explosion that caused all the real damage? There is a lot to look into here as well.
The Chemical Company: Their product is what exploded, and that is what caused the lion’s share of the damage from this accident. Should they share in the liability if it can be proven they did something wrong to make an explosion more likely? Was the chemical properly marked as hazardous? Was it loaded properly? Was it defective and more prone to explosion?
Maintenance & Planning of the Crossing: Apparently this was not a well designed crossing. It just had a stop sign, and was located in an industrial zone. Should there have been gates and warning lights? Was this a private road? Is that setup legal on a private road? If not, who planned it, built it, and maintained it? They may be on the hook. Was it a public crossing? If so, the State of Maryland may be on the hook if they allowed it to exist like that.
Third Parties: Any number of third party companies could be on the hook for doing (or not doing) something long before the crash occurred. Was the truck inspected and maintained by a third party company? What about the railroad tracks? Were there warning signs to the crew of the train that they were supposed to slow down or blow their horns? Was the track defective? Who loaded the chemical into the train? Did they do it right? What other seemingly small factor will they find occurred long before the crash that in hindsight, leads to liability for the accident? I guarantee you the hunt is on for just such a culprit, if only to shift the blame from the real culprit.
I am willing to bet that all the possible culprits are insured, and therefore it will be the insurance companies doing the actual battle in court over the costs of this disaster. But the focus will be on the individual companies and individuals. The liability is personal to them. It is just that they have insurance to cover it, and part of their insurance contract is to provide free attorneys to fight in court.
This case is loaded with questions that won’t be answered until a very thorough investigation is completed. And even then there will be disagreements over the facts, and lots of room for argument. And there are millions of dollars at stake here. Because of that, this case is a gold mine for the law firms that get called in to work on it.