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Yesterday morning, an Amtrak commuter train left the track south of Seattle and sent cars plummeting off an overpass onto I-5, killing three and injuring dozens more. Early reports indicate that the train, making its first run on a new route, may have been traveling over 80 miles per hour a quarter mile before the crash site, where the speed limits drops from 79 mph to 30 mph to accommodate a curve in the track.
If it turns out the engineer failed to obey the posted speed limit, what kind of liability would Amtrak be looking at?
Amtrak is what is known as a "common carrier": a company that offers services to the public under the authority of a regulatory body, and, as such, is required to exercise the highest degree of care for the safety of passengers and cargo. Therefore, common carriers can be sued for injuries for either failing to exercise the care and diligence that would be expected of a reasonably careful operator or failing to adhere to a particular regulation, like a speed limit.
As reported by the AP, a website that maps location and speed data showed the train was going 81.1 mph about a quarter of a mile before the point where it derailed. A Washington State Department of Transportation track chart, however, shows the maximum speed drops from 79 mph to 30 mph before the tracks curve to cross Interstate 5. Evidence of the engineer disregarding or otherwise not obeying the speed limit could lead to a finding of negligence per se: the violation of a statute, regulation, or ordinance enacted to protect against the very harm that resulted.
According to Amtrak, there were seventy-seven passengers, six crew members, and one technician aboard when the train derailed. Multiple train cars spilled onto the highway, striking five passenger vehicles and two semi trucks. None of the motorists were killed, but three train passengers perished. The engineer apparently survived with bleeding from the head and both eyes swollen shut.
Injury and wrongful death lawsuits regarding the crash will surely be forthcoming.