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Canadian National Railroad Train/Car Crash Caused by Malfunctioning Gates and Lights

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The deadly train/car crash involving Katie Lunn at a Canadian National Railroad crossing in University Park, Illinois on April 16, 2010 raises serious questions about the safety systems in place at the international railroad company. At 9:42 p.m., Katie’s vehicle was struck by a Amtrak train on Stuenkel Road near Governors Highway. The crossing is controlled by gates and lights. Witnesses to the crash have told police that the gates and lights were not working at the time of the crash. Canadian National has confirmed that its workers were working at the crossing earlier that day. The railroad has not verified the witnesses version of whether the gates and lights were working.

This incident is not the first involving malfunctioning gates and lights at Canadian National crossings. In 2001, Tim Cavanagh represented the Velarde family in the landmark case entitled Velarde v. Canadian National Railroad Company in the Circuit Court of Cook County. Mr. Cavanagh was the lead attorney that obtained a $55 million verdict for the victims of the crash. Evidence obtained by Cavanagh revealed that the railroad had known of malfunctioning gates and lights at the Army Trail Road crossing for weeks. The railroad instituted a “stop and flag” procedure at the crossing. However, a dispatcher wrongly told the engineer operating the train that the gates and lights had been fixed. Instead of the train stopping at the crossing and flagging cars to stop, the train barrelled thru at 50 miles per hour striking the Velarde vehicle.

Mr. Cavanagh also obtained a $9.1 million settlement in Ajmeri v. Chicago Central and Pacific Railroad Company only three months before the Velarde incident. On the day of the crash, an unusually harsh snow storm caused crossing lights at the Schmale Road crossing to be obscured. The crossing was owned and operated by the Canadian National. Hanifa Ajmeri was a passenger in a vehicle driven by her friend when their car was struck at the crossing by a CC&P train. Police found a crossing gate on the ground that had clearly been knocked down by a car. Railroad representatives initially claimed that the Ajmeri vehicle knocked down the crossing gate. In documents unearthed by Cavanagh in discovery (following Cavanagh’s insistence on an emergency protective order of all evidence), it was revealed that the Canadian National dispatch center received a call notifying it that a crossing gate was knocked down at the Schmale Road crossing. The call was made 45 minutes before the crash. An audio tape of the call revealed that the dispatcher received the call and was required by Federal Rules to institue a “stop and flag” procedure. A “stop and flag” procedure, when implemented properly is a fail safe procedure that will avoid high speed train car crashes even at crossings with malfunctioning gates and lights. However, communication is critical. The information has to be conveyed to all approaching train crews. In the Ajmeri case, deposition testimony revealed that the dispatcher forgot to radio the trains crew. Instead of the train stopping at the crossing, the train barrelled thru at a high speed causing head and hip injuries to Mrs. Ajmeri.

The Ajmeri case was advanced to trial at the behest of Cavanagh. When opening statements were set to begin, the railroad finally succumbed and settled the case for a state record amount of $9.1 million. That record would be broken one year later when Cavanagh won the Velarde case.

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