Fallout From Ohio Train Derailment Continues
Although Gov. Mike DeWine lifted an evacuation order for the town of East Palestine, area residents still face an uncertain future.
When a Norfolk Southern Railroad-operated train derailed on Feb. 3, the authorities decided to conduct a “controlled burn” on February 6, 2023. The resulting fire sent a cloud of toxic smoke over much of Ohio, poisoning the environment. One of the chemicals on the train was vinyl chloride, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says is highly carcinogenic, especially if people inhale the fumes. When burned, it decomposes into other toxic compounds including hydrogen chloride (also known as acid rain). Officials sent mixed messages on this point. They insisted water from the Ohio River was safe to drink, but advised residents not to drink it. They warned people not to drink from their wells until they were tested.
The cause of the derailment is still under investigation. Union official Clyde Whitaker said the railroad had ignored his warnings about the unsafe conditions on this part of the line. “No one wants to listen until we have a town blown off the face of the earth, then people listen,” he remarked.
The media has reported that Norfolk Southern is offering residents $1,000 each as an “inconvenience” but also requiring them to fill out paperwork with detailed information about them, their income, and their property and relatives. It includes their social security number which is heavily protected under federal law. This is concerning. Social security numbers can be used to find your assets, your background, and other private information. The railway is also requiring some residents to sign or provide W2s so that they can be issued tax documents which is worrisome. Residents should not sign documents or cash checks without having a lawyer review and copy them and provide advice on the ramifications under both state and federal law.
Toxic Exposure Injuries
These claims are quite complex, and not just because of the legal responsibility issues discussed below.
Cancer and other toxic exposure injuries often don’t appear for years. These toxins can actually change your DNA. In fact, the average cancer latency period is over three decades. By that time, the negligence statute of limitations has passed. Therefore, simply getting a claim to court is challenging for a Columbus personal injury lawyer.
Ohio law protects victims in these situations. The delayed discovery rule usually applies to latent injury claims. Victims don’t have to file legal paperwork until they know the full extent of their losses, and they connect those losses with another person’s or entity’s misconduct.
So, even if toxic exposure today causes injury years from now, compensation is usually available.
Common Carrier Duty of Care
Most ordinary drivers have a duty of reasonable care in most situations. A train operator is not an ordinary driver by any means. That’s especially true if that train is carrying potentially deadly toxic material.
Therefore, under Ohio law, these operators must “exercise the highest degree of care consistent with the practical operation of its type of transportation and its business as a common carrier. Any failure of a common carrier to exercise such care is negligence.”
To a Columbus personal injury lawyer, the higher duty of care means that a train derailment is almost never an “accident.” Even a slight error, like speeding 1 or 2mph over the recommended speed, is typically negligence, or a lack of care.
Speeding trains are a common sight in many parts of semi-rural Ohio. Since trains must slow to a crawl in large urban areas, train operators often try to make up time when they move through rural areas. Speed is especially likely to cause a derailment when a long train negotiates a slight curve. There’s simply too much weight moving too quickly for even an experienced operator to control properly.
Owners are usually financially responsible for operator error-caused damages in these cases, because of Ohio’s respondeat superior rule. This doctrine applies if the tortfeasor (negligent actor) was an employee who was working in the course and scope of employment. State law broadly defines all these key words and phrases.
Owner Duty of Care
Train operators aren’t the only potentially responsible parties in train derailments. The owner could be directly responsible for damages.
Property owners, including railroad owners, have a duty of care to properly maintain tracks and equipment and ensure these things are safe. Most railroad equipment is decades old, meaning that maintenance is expensive and difficult. Owners cannot use this difficulty and expense as an excuse to put people at risk.
Connect with a Hard-Hitting Franklin County Lawyer
Injury victims are entitled to substantial compensation. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in Columbus, contact the Oliver Law Office. We do not charge upfront legal fees in these matters.