Train Derailments
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Train Derailments

As dozens of communities in the United States and Canada have learned, there is no predicting when and where a freight train will derail. Some derailments are relatively minor, and involve benign cargos such as grain or cement or molasses, or just a car or two jumping a track in a switch yard.

Other derailments, like those involving oil tanker trains, can have a catastrophic impact with violent explosions and fires. You may face an extended mandatory evacuation from your residence or forced closure of your business, and you may experience damage to homes, vehicles and possessions. Water supplies may be temporarily contaminated and you may see or hear about fish kills.

Federal studies show derailments usually can be blamed on human error, equipment failure, or an external event such as a rockslide or water related track washout.

What to do if you’re told have to leave your home in the night with little advance notice.

Shortly after a major derailment with evacuations, the railroad often will set up a temporary local claims office to assist with immediate needs such as next day housing and meals. Evacuees who go there will receive either a voucher or be sent directly to lodging reserved at nearby motels.  If you have symptoms of an injury or chemical exposure, the railroad may also make arrangements for you to go to a medical staging area, usually at a local hospital.

There are usually two ways that a derailment impacts people living in the immediate area. Some will have to leave their dwellings. Others will be ordered to “shelter in place” meaning they are not supposed to go outside for fear of exposure or inhalation. Sometimes, sheltering in place can last for a few days.

If there are chemical releases or fires or a chance of an explosion, you may just have the few minutes of time from when an officer knocks on your door and orders you to leave.

The primary question is – what should I take?

The quick list should be to collect  medications, your purse or wallet with ID, your cell phone and a charger, cash or bank cards; make sure appliances such as ranges or space heaters are turned off and also audio visual equipment. You will probably not have time to pack snacks and drinks. The food inside the fridge will be good for several days if power stays on. Some people choose to take their pets but make sure there will be a temporary kennel or cages for them because large dogs will not be allowed in a motel or a school cafeteria if that’s where emergency shelter is set up. Caring for pets can become a major issue. You may wish to make arrangements to leave pets with a friend or relative.

If power is lost, and you are away for days, plan on having to clear out your refrigerator and also to clean it and the rest of your home thoroughly.

Keep Receipts

Notes for evacuees: keep all receipts for purchases of food, clothing, medicine, snacks, cleaning supplies, fuel, or any other expenses you may have, such as laundry or extra gas for a longer commute because of closed roads or detours and pet food. If it’s cold, you may have to purchase an extra coat or two. You may have to purchase extra under clothes and personal care toiletries.  If your employer is forced to close, or you can’t get to work, you may have a claim for lost income.  Businesses may be entitled to recover for lost or diminished revenue.

Railroads are typically agreeable to paying for actual expenses that evacuees can document with receipts or with reasonable explanations. But in the hectic atmosphere, not everyone remembers to keep receipts. Among the most important records and receipts to save are those which involve any medical treatment you received related to the derailment.  If you have to hire someone to clean your home or repair the roof or windows or detail your car, or fix your plumbing, keep all the estimates and receipts.

Property Inspections

While you are away from your home, it is possible that toxic or hazardous chemicals or ash may settle on your property or may have drained through it. Inspect your property after you return to see if there is damage; check foundations, concrete pads, walls and ceilings and windows for cracks if there were explosions. If you use a well for water, ask the railroad or health department if it’s safe to drink. If the weather is bitterly cold and you lost heat or power as a result of the derailment, check pipes underneath your residence for leaks.

If during the process of filing your initial temporary claim with the railroad for immediate meals and lodging, you are asked to approve releases to hold the railroad harmless as a condition of getting temporary living funds, you may wish to consult an attorney prior to signing any documents.

Aside from property damage and the occasional injury, we have found that many people forced to leave during explosions or fires also suffer from psychological trauma and anxiety. Our clients tell us their children have developed develop a fear of trains which pass near their homes.

Getting the All-Clear

When you get the all clear to return home, you first may wish to walk around your house and property before you re-enter. Video everything if you think there is damage. If you do have a damage claim to report, it is likely that the railroad will send an inspector to your home or business to take notes and photos. This is all normal procedure.

Those ordered to shelter in place may also have claims, because they have been prevented from the full use and enjoyment of their property and their movements have been limited.

Our experience is that without litigation, railroads typically are reluctant to pay for many property damage claims, except for the most obvious ones such as burned houses or vehicles closest to the derailment site. They also will oppose psychological damage claims.

Serious derailments do not occur often, but if you live close to tracks where oil or chemical trains frequently travel, it’s best to have a plan in place if you have to leave suddenly because of a fire or explosion. If you have been ordered to evacuate or have questions or concerns about a derailment or a hazardous materials release, please contact The Bryant Law Center at 1-270-442-1422.

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