Why I believe in Lawsuits
Thousands of lives were affected by the events of 9/11, but just one life was changed forever the following day. Until September 12th, 2001, Mrs. Jones (fictitious name) lived a normal life as the 40-something wife of a 38-year old tractor trailer driver from Hudson, New York. Then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.
On the morning of September 12th, one day after the 9/11 terrorist attack, a CSX train slammed into Mr. Jones's tractor-trailer at a railroad grade crossing at the Northeast Solite plant on Old Kings Highway in Saugerties. Mr. Jones was killed instantly. The locomotive split the tractor trailer in half and Mr. Jones was propelled through the front windshield of his tractor. Mr. Jones didn't stand a chance.
Mrs. Jones was stunned when she got the news and was suddenly confronted with the reality that her husband and best friend was taken from her in the prime of his life. The news was not as surprising to those familiar with the Solite railroad crossing.
You see, for over 20 years, the Solite railroad crossing had been classified by the U.S. Department of Transportation as the most dangerous railroad crossing in New York. Although the ranking of railroad crossings was updated every year by the Department of Transportation, there was one constant: the status of the Solite railroad crossing as the most dangerous in New York.
The railroad crossing posed a hazard to tractor trailer drivers because the railroad tracks were only 19 feet from the nearest edge of Old Kings Highway, a 55 mile per hour highway. Tractor trailer drivers exiting the Northeast Solite had to straddle the railroad tracks while waiting for traffic to clear on Old Kings Highway. Until the traffic was clear, the tractor trailer was exposed over the railroad tracks and there was no where for the truck drivers to go. The design of the railroad crossing was a recipe for disaster for truck drivers.
Truck drivers were killed and maimed at this railroad crossing for over 20 years. While the average railroad crossing has one accident every 31 years, the Solite railroad crossing had 11 truck/train collisions in 8 years before September 12th of 2001 (in 1998, there were three train/truck collisions at this crossing over the span of three weeks).
Town, County and railroad officials had meetings after virtually every new accident to discuss safety changes to the railroad crossing. Town meetings with railroad officials were frequent, but there were no safety changes for 30 years.Years passed with no changes while the injury and death toll to truckers kept climbing inexorably.
After each train/truck collision, a new lawsuit was brought against the Town of Saugerties, County of Ulster and CSX (the train company). The liability of the municipalities and CSX was clear: as the death and injury toll mounted at the Solite railroad crossing, they stood by and did nothing. The meetings continued, but the railroad crossing remained the same.
After fighting the lawsuits by blaming the truck drivers, the cases were eventually resolved in favor of the injured victims. Two years after bringing the lawsuit and 5 days before trial, I settled Mrs. Jones's lawsuit. This was just one of a number of lawsuits that had been settled by the Town, County and CSX (I handled 3 of the cases). Mrs. Jones got paid and the negligent parties kept doing business as usual at the railroad crossing.
After Mrs. Jones's case settled, I became disillusioned by the lawsuits. All it took was a seven or high six figure payoff by the Town, County and CSX, and the death and injury toll would keep climbing without any changes to the railroad crossing. The lawsuits served no purpose and truckers would continue getting killed and maimed...or so I thought.
A few days before Christmas in 2004, something strange struck me as I happened to drive by the railroad crossing at the Solite plant on my way back to my office in Albany. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a crossing guard and a large booth set up at the railroad crossing. I got out of my car to take a look and the crossing guard came running at me while yelling at me to stay away from the crossing. I could not believe my eyes--this was the first time a crossing guard had ever been posted at the crossing.
The Town, County and CSX had taken the simple step of posting a crossing guard to stop traffic at the crossing whenever a train was approaching. Tractor trailers would now be alerted to oncoming trains by the crossing guard and kept off the railroad tracks when a train approached. Problem solved. There have been zero accidents at the railroad crossing since this simple step was taken.
A couple years later, the Town, County and CSX moved the railroad crossing to a new location about 1/4 of a mile north of its location at the entrance to the Solite plant. The most dangerous railroad crossing in the State became one of the safest.
The injury and death toll at the Solite railroad crossing did not result in any changes. The real impetus for change at the Solite railroad crossing was the seven figure settlements paid by the municipalities and CSX. Did the Town, County and CSX officials have altruistic reasons for fixing the crossing? Not likely.
When they were forced to open their pocketbooks, the municipalities and CSX saw a reason to fix the crossing--their bottom line. It was more cost-effective for the Town, County and CSX to fix the railroad crossing than to continue paying settlements for the injury and death toll caused by the ultra-hazardous crossing. Yes, lawsuits made all of the difference and it's great to say, no one else will be killed or maimed at the Solite railroad crossing.
Whenever I hear someone mention how lawsuits are ruining our society and driving up insurance costs for everyone, I don't try to convince them that they're wrong. I know I cannot convince anyone with such strong beliefs about our civil justice system. So I listen politely and nod my head...and think of the Solite railroad crossing and Mrs. Jones.
If you have any questions or want more information about our civil justice system, I welcome your phone call on my toll-free cell at 1-866-889-6882 or you can send me an e-mail at [email protected] . You can always request my FREE book, The Seven Deadly Mistakes of Malpractice Victims, at the home page of my website at www.protectingpatientrights.com.