Proposed Bill Would Limit Railroad Accident Liability

HOPEWELL, Va. -- Reducing huge payouts after drivers ignore the red and white crossing arms across railroad tracks would be one of the benefits of a bill introduced by Del. Riley Ingram (R-Hopewell), the Hopewell News reports.

The bill "provides that in any suit for personal injuries, a railroad corporation is not liable for damages to a third party if it is determined that a defendant, other than the railroad corporation, failed to stop at a railroad crossing."

"If you deliberately are negligent, drive around the gates and run in front of a train, this would limit the amount of money the railroad has to pay out," Ingram said. "Even when there's negligence, sometimes the lawsuits cost the railroad $12, $15, up to $20 million. This is a common-sense issue."

Although the bill has its supporters, members of the Trial Lawyers Association have indicated opposition to the measure. On Wednesday, the delegate met with members of the United Transportation Union and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers who would like an amendment protecting the engineers against excessive settlements.

However, determining fault and any type of award when an accident occurs at a crossing without a gate and without witnesses would be left to the courts, Ingram said.

In previous sessions, Ingram has introduced a bill requesting Norfolk Southern reopen a crossing on Golf Course Drive in Prince George closed because of safety and liability issues.

As far as how this measure would affect this particular crossing, Ingram said it most likely would take more negotiation to reopen that particular one, but if not, another one further up the road would be a possibility.

The county is pushing for funding to put gates and signals this crossing, and would like to see the Virginia Department of Transportation's budget include half of the cost. The remainder would be shared by the county and the railroad, Interim County Adminstrator John Kines Jr. said. The area would be made a public roadway after this occurred.

"The bill itself we're not advocating, but our goal is to find funding," Kines said, noting they were happy with the work Ingram has done on the overall issue.

Ingram coordinated meetings with Norfolk Southern and county officials during the 2001 General Assembly session, and in prior years.

Representatives of Norfolk Southern met most recently with the county in early December, Kines said. A spokesman for Norfolk Southern said Wednesday the company's lawyers are reviewing the bill and he could not comment on the bill at this time.