Monday, September 15, 2008
Los Angeles suffered one of the worst train crashes in American history on Friday, leading to approximately 25 dead and more than 100 injured. A Metrolink commuter train rammed head-on into a Union Pacific freight train. Initially, Metrolink blamed the accident on the deceased Metrolink engineer, whom Metrolink said had ignored the signal not to proceed. Oddly, this blame came before the complete investigation has been completed.
Interestingly, the Metrolink engineer was employed by an independent contractor, Veolia Transportation, Inc. As a result, some have wondered if Metrolink was seeking to avoid liability by blaming the injury on the engineer, claiming that Metrolink and the state were not responsible for the independent contractor's conduct. Not so fast. Although it's true that liability is not generally traced from acts of independent contractors to those hiring them, the law does generally allow liability to continue where the independent contractor appears to be an employee, or where the independent contractor's work is controlled by the hiring entity. Here, I would imagine the engineer appeared to everyone as a Metrolink employee, and the public assumed as much. In addition, I would imagine Metrolink closely controlled the work of an independent contractor who is engineer on its trains. Cases under the California Tort Claims Act also have recognized, particularly in cases involving public defenders as independent contractors, that those hired by the state may still trigger liability for the state where the state treated them as employees and controlled their work.
A separate issue of interest is the question of positive train control, which allows trains to be monitored and controlled remotely using GPS. This technology, which though not currently widely used, is in increasing use across the country and would slow and stop trains if they appeared to be heading toward a crash. Metrolink's failure to use this technology might be another basis for a negligence claim.
For more on the disaster, see this article in the Wall Street Journal -- Crash Highlights Risk on the Rails, by Peter Sanders, Alex Roth, and Andy Pasztor. I'm quoted in the article.