Resignation of FRA Official Heath Hall Raises Ethical Concerns

The Federal Railroad Administration is responsible for safety on the railroads. However, in an era of frequent train crashes its role is being questioned as well as that of FRA official Heath Hall who recently resigned.

Hall is the former deputy administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. He resigned his position over the weekend amid concerns about “outside work” he took on while he was in the position.

The Washington Post reported an ethics group submitted a letter to the Department of Justice Tuesday requesting an investigation into Hall.

The Campaign for Accountability said the department should look at whether Hall violated federal criminal law by filing a public financial disclosure report in which he allegedly falsely claimed he would not be receiving outside income.

Resignation of FRA official Heath Hall
Concerns over Resignation of FRA official Heath Hall

The group is claiming Strategic Marketing Group, a public relations firm where Hall served as president, continued to receive thousands of dollars in money while Hall was a senior official in the rail safety agency.

In August, Hall was apparently quoted by Mississippi television station WJTV as a representative of the Madison County Sheriff’s Department.

No employee appointed by the president to a full-time position in the executive branch is allowed to receive earned income for outside employment.

Slate noted Hall found time to appear at least twice in local news segments on behalf of a sheriff’s department in Mississippi, where his public relations and the political consulting firm is based.

Aside from the ethical considerations of this scenario, it’s disturbing that FRA official Heath Hall was working in another capacity when safety on the railroad should have been his top consideration.

Hall was in charge of Amtrak, a company involved in three serious crashes since December. The Government has yet to make a full-time appointment.

Earlier this month, an Amtrak train crashed into a CSX train in South Carolina, killing two crew members and injuring more than 100.

Federal investigators are investigating how CSX crews routed the Amtrak train into a parked freight train in Cayce, SC.

Although CSX may be to blame, Amtrak is likely to end up paying crash victims’ legal claims with public money, reported CNBC.

The report said Amtrak pays up for accidents it was not to blame for because of agreements between the passenger rail company, which takes more than $1 billion annually in federal subsidies, and the private railroads, the owners of 97 percent of the tracks on which Amtrak travels.

CNBC pointed to the secretive nature of these agreements. Amtrak officials point out the passenger train company generally bears the full cost of damages to its trains, employees, passengers, and other crash victims, even if a freight rail company was responsible for a wreck due to negligence or misconduct.

The furor concerning FRA official Health Hall comes at a time when CSX’s safety record has deteriorated, a metric provided by the Federal Railroad Administration reveals.

Since 2013, CSX’s rate of major accidents per million miles traveled rose by more than half, from 2 to 3.08 — significantly higher than the industry average. Rail passenger advocates said they were concerned after the CSX CEO at that time pushed hard last year to alter freight routes.

The FRA has much to do to improve safety for railroad workers and passengers alike. If you were injured on the railroad, please call me at (757) 455-0077.

John Cooper

 

 

Amtrak and CSX Crash in South Carolina Highlights Worker Dangers

Another horrific and deadly Amtrak accident highlights the dangers faced by workers and passengers on our railroads. On Feb. 4, two people were killed and about 70 were injured in an Amtrak and CSX crash in South Carolina.

The accident in Cayce derailed Amtrak 91, which was operating from New York to Miami. A report in The State noted the crash occurred near Charleston Highway and Pine Ridge Road around 2:35 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

The train had eight crew members and approximately 139 passengers on board. It was not immediately clear what caused the two trains to collide.

A team from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived on the site on Feb. 4 to help determine the cause of the crash, NTSB chairman Robert Sumwalt told CNN.

Crashes of this nature again highlight the dangers faced by railroad workers on a daily basis. When fast-moving passenger trains and slow freight trains are operating on the same lines or in close proximity, there is always potential for safety errors to occur.

Amtrak and CSX Crash in South Carolina
Scene of the Amtrak and CSX Crash in South Carolina (Lexington Sheriff’s Department)

Initial reports did not detail the breakdown in the injured between workers and Amtrak passengers. Engineers and conductors are often hurt in collisions on the railroad.

For the 70 or so classified as injured, the injuries ranged from small scratches to broken bones, stated Lexington County public information officer Harrison Cahill.

At least seven people were reported to be transported to local hospitals for various injuries. The severity of those injuries, including whether or not they were classified as life-threatening, was not immediately apparent.

Passengers who were not injured were shaken up and placed in a reception site set up by the American Red Cross at Pine Ridge Middle School.

Many questions are being asked in the wake of the Amtrak and CSX crash in South Carolina including the issue of the status of Positive Train Control (PTC).

PTC has been mandated by Congress but the railroads have stalled. In the devastating Amtrak crash in Washington State that killed three people in December, PTC emerged as a major issue.

Positive Train Control is meant to prevent crashes of this nature but it was not activated on the train in Washington State, even though it had the capability. Positive train control, or PTC, has the ability to automatically slow down and stop a train completely if it’s going too fast or could get into an accident. It’s also means to prevent collisions between trains. The Federal Railroad Administration hailed it as the “single-most important rail safety development in more than a century.”

The Amtrak train in Washington State was traveling 80 mph in a 30-mph zone, National Transportation Safety Board member Bella Dinh-Zarr said.

I’m alarmed that poor communication and a failure to implement safety systems is putting railroad workers in danger on a daily basis.

A lawsuit filed by the family of a worker killed by an Amtrak train at Chester in Pennsylvania in 2016, said the worker believed the track was protected at the time he was struck by the train. It cited poor communication and a failure to adhere to appropriate practices and procedures.

If you have lost a loved one in a railroad accident or been injured, I would like to hear from you. Cooper Hurley Injury Lawyers files regular claims against Amtrak. Call us for a free consultation at (866) 455-6657.

John Cooper

CSX Train Carrying Molten Sulfur Derailed in Florida

America’s railroads carry hazardous materials across the country. If you think these shipments are safe, think again. During the most recent accident residents were warned to stay indoors and close their windows after a CSX train carrying molten sulfur derailed.

A report on NPR noted four cars derailed near Lakeland in Florida. Officials were warned to remain in their homes.

The report stated several cars leaked. This is an extremely hazardous substance. Burning sulfur emits large quantities of sulfur dioxide, an irritating, toxic, and suffocating gas linked to severe lung damage and death.

CSX Spokesman Rob Doolittle said molten sulfur as “a hazardous material used in making rubber, detergent, and fertilizers.”

CSX reported nine rail cars were reported derailed in this crash. Polk County Fire Rescue reported on how several cars were left “rolled over and mangled.”

CSX train carrying molten sulfur derailed
A CSX train carrying molten sulfur derailed

The railroad operator reported no injuries. It is investigating the cause of the derailment.

A fire engine crew spotted the derailed cars discovered shortly before 2 a.m on Nov. 27. The engine was on the way back from a medical call. Hazmat crews were mobilized to the derailment scene. They were reported to be working with officials from CSX and state agencies to investigate.

NPR reported this derailment occurred close to a residential subdivision along Kathleen Road. The train track runs parallel to the highway. Part of the road was closed after the crash.

No residents were evacuated due to the derailment and sulfur leak, according to officials. They were told to shelter in their homes. Officials instructed them to turn off their air conditioning units.

CSX Train Carrying Molten Sulfur Derailed – The Hazards of Chemical Trains

As well as communities living close to railroad lines, workers face daily risks to their health from dangerous chemicals carried on the railroads.

Earlier this year, we noted a series of cancer lawsuits were filed by railroad workers who fell sick across the country and the families of those who lost loved ones.

We also noted how chlorine accidents pose a major danger to railroad workers after a series of spills across the United States.

Tank cars used by the railroads still rupture too easily, endangering communities, first responders and railroad workers alike.

If you fear your health has been affected by dangerous chemicals or other substances, you have likely grounds to make a claim under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA). Call us today for a free consultation at (866) 455-6657.

John Cooper

Questions Over the Deaths of Two CSX Railroad Workers in Washington D.C.

Alarming questions linger over the deaths of two CSX railroad workers in Washington D.C. last month following reports they got off their train to inspect a problem.

According to the Washington Post, the men got off their freight train to identify what triggered an alarm. The men were inspecting an issue with the wheels, causing the train to stop, National Transportation Safety Board officials said.

The men were killed when they crossed onto an active track on which Amtrak was running its passenger trains, according to reports. It’s unclear why the workers were on the Amtrak line but the tragedy clearly raises communication issues.

The deaths of two CSX railroad workers are being investigated by the NTSA.

Questions over Deaths of Two CSX Railroad Workers
Deaths of Two CSX Railroad Workers Raise Questions

According to a USA Today news article, the deaths occurred just before midnight in Washington, D.C. near the intersection of Ninth Street and New York Avenue.

D.C. fire and EMS crews responded to the accident and pronounced the two CSX workers dead at the scene.  The two men, a conductor and a conductor trainee, were later identified as Stephen Deal, 20, of Meyersdale, Pa., and Jake LaFave, 25, of Cumberland, Md.

Authorities say that the passengers aboard the Amtrak train were forced to stay on board for several hours before being transferred to another train to transport them to their destination.  Officials also noted that the Amtrak service between Washington D.C. and Philadelphia was put on a temporary suspension during the investigation.

The Deaths of Two CSX Railroad Workers – The Unanswered Questions

The NTSB official is looking at what communication if any, there was between CSX and Amtrak before the crash.

In April 2016, two Amtrak workers were killed by a train that struck their backhoe. Investigations pointed to a mishandled handoff between foremen. The train’s operator also tested positive for marijuana after the wreck in Chester, Pa. A subsequent wrongful death lawsuit cited poor communications.

We are saddened by the tragic loss of life that occurred as a result of this accident.  Our thoughts are with the families of those who lost their lives. It is likely that another breakdown in communication occurred in Washington D.C., although we will not be sure until we get more details.

The presence of more than one rail operator on adjacent lines is a potential recipe for disaster and more workers have paid with their lives.

Cooper Hurley Injury Lawyers routinely represents injured workers, as well as the families of deceased railway employees.

While these places are dangerous work environments, the employees still have rights to remain safe under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA).  FELA enables railroad workers to gain compensation for injuries sustained while at work who were at least partially the fault of the railroad.

If you or someone you know has been injured on the railway or at the workplace, please make sure to contact an experienced and trusted FELA attorney.  Call Cooper Hurley Injury Lawyers at 757-455-0077.

John Cooper

Dangerous Chemicals Spilled in CSX Derailment in Washington D.C.

Trains carry toxic and flammable materials long distances across the country. It would be reassuring for railroad workers and people who live near the tracks to know dangerous chemicals were being safely carried, but a series of accidents on America’s railroads gives me little cause for comfort.

In the latest incident, chemicals leaked from a CSX train after a derailment in the Washington, D.C. area that sent 14 cars off the tracks and spilled hazardous material.

The train derailed about 6:40 a.m. on May 1 near the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station, CSX said. The railroad said sodium hydroxide leaked from the car. The tanker was carrying approximately 15,500 gallons of the chemical, reported CBS.

Dangerous chemicals were spilled from a tanker car
Tanker cars routinely fail during derailments

Sodium hydroxide is not the kind of chemical you want to be leaking out. It is highly corrosive. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it causes irritation of the skin, eyes and respiratory system. Fire crews said about half of the tanker was emptied, with the chemical leaking into the ground under the tracks.

No injuries were reported to either crew members, first responders or members of the public. The incident caused major delays on the railroad network.

Another derailed tank car was reported to have leaked a non-hazardous calcium chloride solution and a third tanker was seeping ethanol.

Although nobody was harmed in the incident in D.C., it again highlights how hazardous the railroads are and how tanker cars routinely fail to hold dangerous chemicals when trains derail. I have written in the past about the tragedy in Graniteville, S.C., when dangerous chlorine leaked from Norfolk Southern tanker cars after a crash, killing nine people in 2005.

If you have been exposed to hazardous chemicals on the railroad and your health has been affected, you may have grounds to sue under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA). Call us today at (866) 455-6657.

CSX Faces Hearing over Lack Of Defibrillators on Trains

john-Cooper-web-imageBy John Cooper, Railroad Injury Lawyer

A railroad has a duty to provide a safe environment including good lighting in yards and working areas free of hidden hazards to workers. However, a long-running lawsuit against CSX in Florida has raised the question whether this extends to automated external defibrillators on trains to provide assistance to workers who may have heart attacks on the job.

Nearly a decade after a railroad conductor died in a remote part of Florida the issue is still to be decided. At the end of last month, the Florida Supreme Court agreed to take up a lawsuit about the railroad company’s duty to provide medical assistance.

A CSX train in Portsmouth, VA
A CSX train in Portsmouth, VA

The Daily Record reported on how Crystal Sells, the widow of conductor Larry Sells, made an appeal to the Supreme Court after the District Court of Appeal last year ruled in favor of CSX in the negligence case.

The case came in the wake of the death of conductor Larry Sells who lost his life in August 2006 after suffering a heart attack as he went to manually operate a switch to change tracks in remote Clay County.

Sells was discovered by a co-worker within two minutes. He called a CSX dispatcher for help. Tragically, the dispatcher was confused about the conductor’s exact location and emergency medical technicians did not arrive on the scene for 35 minutes, by which time it was too late for Mr. Sells.

CSX Accused of Failing to Provide a Safe Workplace

Crystal Sells later filed the lawsuit contending CSX failed to provide a safe work place. The issues cited included a lack of automated external defibrillators on trains.

In May 2015, a panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal sided with CSX but the conductor’s widow successfully appealed.

Her attorneys argued CSX breached its duties under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) and that the appeals-court ruling could have broad implications for safety on the railroads.

“This decision, the first of its kind nationwide, will be used by FELA employers as persuasive authority in state and federal courts to support their failure to take precautionary measures to ensure their workers receive prompt medical care, even when they knowingly send them to remote areas that are too far from EMTs,’’ said the brief, filed in October.

The Supreme Court case is important because it could have a bearing on how safe large railroad operators like CSX and Norfolk Southern, should make their trains. Given that trains operate in many remote parts of the country, there is a powerful argument that providing a safe working environment goes beyond the obvious hazards to include equipment that may help employees who suffer health conditions on the job.

If you or a loved one has been injured on the railroad you may have grounds for a claim under FELA. Call us today at (866) 455-6657.

Railroads Delay Positive Train Control Safety Measures Again

john-web-imageBy John Cooper, FELA Accident Lawyer

I have written before about Positive Train Control, a system that may have prevented the terrible Amtrak crash in Philadelphia last year and would save many railroad workers from injuries.

PTC can automatically slow or stop trains to avoid collisions and derailments and protect areas of track where crews are working. The only problem with the system is the fact America’s big railroads are dragging their heels when it comes to implementing it.

PTC is intended to prevent serious crashes like this Amtrak wreck
PTC is intended to prevent serious crashes like this Amtrak wreck

Three of the biggest railroads in North America – Canadian National Railway, CSX and Norfolk Southern say they won’t meet a 2018 deadline for the installation of this key piece of railroad safety technology, reported Progressive Railroading.

A list provided from the Federal Railroad Administration reveals these three railroads say they won’t be ready to install PTC until 2020. A number of smaller commuter railroads in Illinois, Florida, Massachusetts and Texas also said they will miss the deadline.

Amtrak is already operating a version of the technology on its tracks but it’s far from comprehensive because most of Amtrak’s operations outside the Northeast are on track owned by freight railroads. Three freight railroads said they would be able to meet the 2018 deadline.

The 2018 date itself represents a postponement of the new safety measures. At the end of last year, Congress extended an original deadline of Dec. 31, 2015, to the end of 2018, as railroads threatened to shut down operations. The new legislation contains provisions, under certain circumstances, that railroads would have until 2020 to implement the safety technology.

However, after Congress approved the later date, FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg told railroads they should not assume they have until 2020 to install and begin using PTC on their networks. As long as years ago I was warning the big railroads were backsliding on PTC.

It has taken many tragedies to force the hand of legislators. Congress opted for positive train control in the wake of one of the nation’s worst train accidents in 2008, when a Metrolink commuter train hit a freight train head-on near Los Angeles in California, leaving 25 people dead and injuring more than 100.

We frequently see accidents in rail yards that injure or kill workers that could be avoided if PTC was in place. If you have been injured on the railroad, call me at (866) 455-6657.

Insufficient Help : A Common Claim in FELA Cases

By John Cooper, Railroad Worker Injury Attorney

Often the cause of injuries on the railroad to workers results from crew size reductions that have happened over time on the major railroads like CSX and Norfolk Southern.  The giant freight railroads of the east reduce their labor costs whenever they can. Sometimes they replace men with machines and other times just get rid of people without providing additional help of any sort in the important tasks for railroad workers in all departments including transportation, mechanical and engineering.

Often an allegation that we make as lawyers filing Federal Employer Liability Act (FELA) claims is that there was a lack of help provided to the worker, and this made their job unsafe.  Allegations of negligence by the railroads, causing injuries to engineers, conductors, car men and maintenance way workers can be about the equipment provided or the method of doing the work.  If the method of doing the job is unsafe and a worker gets injured, then the railroad can be held responsible for that railroad worker’s injury.

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For example, any task that involves lifting heavy objects from 50 pounds to 150 pounds might be more safely done by two men or with the assistance of a crane or hydraulic lift.  These kinds of lifting tasks occur throughout the railroad, and yet often one person is forced to lift some extremely heavy object in such a way that they end up hurting their back or having the heavy object fall on them and crush their foot or similar body part.  Usually what you find is that the railroad either over time stopped providing two guys to do the job, or they have set up the worker on a task either in a late-night shift or somewhere out on the road where there are not enough people around to make the job safe.

If you have been hurt on the job, it’s always important to report your injury.  On the injury reports one of the places that they demand information from the railroad worker about the railroad’s fault will say something like were you provided with a reasonably safe place.  One easy way to answer this question is always “insufficient help.”

It’s almost always true that if there were more staff for the job, a particular injury could have been avoided.  Over time, the train crews that operates freight up and down the tracks have gone from five-member crews down to two and sometimes even one-person crews.  They got rid of the firefighters, assistant conductors, and other workers over time.  Now there are trains being regularly operated in railroad yards across America and it’s only one employee with a remote control box so that there’s not even anybody actually physically on the locomotive.  This is a recipe for a disaster, and it’s just one example of inadequate staffing or insufficient help that can lead to wrecks and even deaths during railroad work.

If you have been hurt on the railroad due to poor staffing levels, or any other factor, call Coper Hurley Injury Lawyers at (866) 455-6657.

Railroad Train Crew PTSD Injuries After Crossing Wrecks

By John Cooper, Railroad Injury Lawyer

I have represented many injured railroad workers who were either engineers or conductors on trains that had some kind of incident at a railroad grade crossing with a road.  Sometimes the injuries can be quite horrible physical injuries if the train hits a truck and derails.  Sometimes however the injuries are more of a psychological kind because the large locomotive is able to blast through a small passenger car and the primary injury to the railroad worker is the horror of watching someone else be killed or seriously injured as a result of the collision.

Recently, I represented several Norfolk Southern and CSX train crew members who were forced to witness violent crashes between their train and a motor vehicle.  Both train crews were exposed to a near death experience. They really didn’t know if their train was going to derail or that some fire or other force might take their lives.  Under these circumstances, post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD can easily develop.

When a train crew suffers post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of a crossing accident or fatality there may be a claim against the railroad for failing to provide a reasonably safe place to work if the crossing was not properly protected and maintained in such a way that contributed to the collision.  There may also be a claim against the driver of the car and their insurance company for causing the wreck. I’ve also handled cases against the tractor trailer companies who had a negligent driver who caused the train and big rig to crash.  Either way it is usually not the fault of the conductor and engineer who are forced to watch essentially someone get killed before their eyes and they’re given very little training as to how to avoid these collisions.

One tricky legal rule in circumstances of getting PTSD as a railroad train crew member is whether there are physical symptoms as well.  If there is some physical injury, even relatively minor, that can make a big difference in the way the law treats the psychological injury.  If there is absolutely no physical injury and only psychological injury then the question often hinges on whether the train crew had a reasonable fear for their life which is sometimes called the zone of danger test.  If it was at least plausible that the train crew could have been killed which it usually is in these kinds of grade crossing accidents, then a claim for PTSD may be successful.

The amount of money involved in these claims is often not as large as after a train derailment where there is a major catastrophic injury and PTSD.  However, I have been successful at obtaining settlements that reflect the anguish that the train crew often feels in these situations.  Unfortunately, if you are a road engineer or conductor you are going to be involved in a certain number of these collisions in your career.  It’s unavoidable because there are lots of unsafe crossing out there on the system, and often motorists make mistakes at them. If you have been injured in an accident on a grade crossing or suffered psychological damage, call Cooper Hurley Injury Lawyers at 866.455.6657.

Railroads Dominate Whistleblower Claims To OSHA

By John Cooper, Railroad Injury Lawyer

As a railroad worker, you can face a dilemma if you see and report dangerous conditions on the job. Although reporting a hazard is the sensible thing to do for the sake of your welfare and that of your fellow workers, the big railroads don’t always see it that way.

The railroads are often more interested in their profits than in your safety, and they don’t take criticism well. An example is provided in a recent article in Fairwarning.org.

BNSF2

Mike Elliott, a railroad worker from Washington State, became so concerned with signals that were inexplicably changing, he took up the issue with BNSF Railway Co. He quickly found the railroad had no interest in addressing the problem so took it up with the Federal Railroad Administration,

That’s when his problems began. The regulator found 357 safety violations, including 112 signal system defects on the tracks. Elliott lost his job as a locomotive engineer.

Fortunately, the federal whistleblower laws are in place for this kind of scenario. This summer a jury ruled BNSF’s action was illegal retaliation.

Elliott was awarded $1.25 million, although the award is being appealed. Commentators say it highlights the unjust punishment that is given to workers who report issues and reflect the old-style management tactics on the railroad.

There are no fewer than 22 federal whistleblower rules administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.  They are still widely flouted by employers.

Fairwarning.org alluded to OSHA figures that show, workers employed by railroads filed in excess of 2,000 retaliation complaints against their employers. The fact seven railroads were in the list of the 10 worst offenders highlights the extent of the problem in this industry where safety is paramount.

BNSF led the way with 409 complaints, followed by Union Pacific, which had 360 whistleblower complaints. CSX and Norfolk Southern were in fourth and fifth place with 267 and 247 complaints respectively. Almost half of the cases brought against the railroads have been upheld.

In some cases, workers have been fired for reporting an injury. There is certainly a culture on the railroads that leads workers to believe they will be discriminated against if they file an official report after being hurt, even though they have a right to seek compensation under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) when they are not to blame.

I have represented injured railroad workers for more than two decades. If you have been hurt on the railroads, call me for a free consultation at 866-455-6677.