It was during a dark, freezing night in December when I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to drive the long way home. As I drive home down a rural road in the middle of nowhere, I approach an industrial plant that was well known to me. The industrial plant was the site of a number of collisions between trains and tractor trailers at its entrance, several of which resulted in death and horrible injuries for the truckers.
As I begin to pass the industrial plant, I spot something out of the corner of my eye: a temporary booth about the size of a portable toilet in front of the entrance to the plant. Intrigued by this new booth at the entrance, I pull to the side of the road, get out of my car and begin walking toward the booth.
As I get to within a couple hundred feet, a uniformed “cop” comes rushing out of the booth, points a flashlight in my direction and showing little courtesies for a stranger, shouts “get lost” (using more colorful words). As I turn around and begin walking back to my car, it dawns on me for the first time: years of work weren’t wasted.
The Dark, Ugly Secret of an Industrial Plant
The entrance to the industrial plant had a long, dark history. Collisions between trains and tractor trailers at the grade crossing at the entrance to the industrial plant were not uncommon: over the course of 8 years, there were 9 accidents involving freight trains colliding into tractor trailers at the entrance (the average grade crossing has 1 accident every 31 years). The federal Department of Transportation classified the grade crossing as the most dangerous crossing in New York State for over 30 years.
For 25+ years, one meeting after another was held between the plant’s owner, the railroad and the town and county to fix the problem. There was an obvious danger to truckers (with 3 truck-train collisions in only 3 weeks), but the politicians, plant and railroad were all talk and no one wanted to take responsibility or pay to fix the problem. Truckers were getting horribly injured, with devastating brain and orthopedic injuries and death, but no changes were made to the grade crossing.
Very predictably, the train-truck collisions resulted in a rash of lawsuits against the plant, railroad, and municipalities. I handled 3 of the cases on behalf of truckers and the estate of a trucker and truth be told, it wasn’t hard. The paper trail left by the bureaucrats was a fodder of gold for a plaintiffs’ lawyer: paperwork showing innumerable meetings with no tangible evidence of any changes to the grade crossing. This was a plaintiffs’ lawyer’s dream come true.
A Hard Reality for an Idealistic Young Lawyer
Eventually, there was a price to pay. After throwing all of their resources into fighting the lawsuits, hiring the most expensive defense lawyers and expert witnesses and taking the first few lawsuits to trial, the industrial plant, railroad and the municipalities realized they were fighting a losing battle. The lawsuits were settled once the plant, railroad and municipalities realized they couldn’t win—they had ignored a serious danger at the grade crossing for way too long.
As the cases were settled and I began moving on to other work, I gradually became more and more disillusioned. After years of hard work and substantial settlements, nothing changed—the grade crossing remained exactly the same way that it had for 30 years. It was just a matter of time until more truckers were killed and severely injured and I was troubled by the realization that the lawsuits hadn’t done a thing to make the grade crossing safer.
Perhaps I was realizing for the first time in my career that lawsuits don’t make a damn bit of difference. An idealistic young lawyer was confronting a hard reality.
Proof that Lawsuits Make a Difference
Then on a dark, cold winter night on a rural county road, I saw with my own eyes the impact that lawsuits have. For the first time in 30+ years, the railroad hired a crossing guard to stop traffic 24/7 when trains were crossing the grade crossing. The problem had a simple fix, namely, an un-skilled, minimum wage crossing guard who stops trucks whenever trains approach the grade crossing. Problem solved! There would be no more injuries and no more lawsuits.
But the story gets better. About a quarter mile up the road, construction was taking place to build a new entrance to the industrial plant and relocate the grade crossing. About a year later, the new entrance was open for traffic that had a unique feature: one of the safest grade crossings in the country. And as for the old grade crossing, it was shut down and permanently closed.
The most dangerous grade crossing in New York State was replaced by one of the safest. It wasn’t easy and tragically, way too much blood was spilt over years of inaction and indifference, but eventually the problem was fixed by bureaucrats, a railroad and plant who refused to confront a harsh reality…until lawsuits forced them to.
The Next Time You Hear a Lawyer Joke….
The next time you hear someone make a lawyer joke, don’t tell them that you’re insulted or that they’re wrong. Tell them your own story about how lawsuits change lives and make everyone safer. Tell them about a grade crossing that went from being the most dangerous to one of the safest. Share with them a story about bureaucratic indifference to public safety and how lawsuits can force corporations and municipalities to fix dangerous hazards.
Don’t be surprised, the public bias against injury law is too strong to overcome. There’s a good chance they’ll listen politely, nod their head just to be polite and awkwardly find a way to step away from the conversation. That’s understandable because they haven’t seen for themselves the impact that lawsuits can make.
But it’s okay to be idealistic every once in a while and enjoy a small reminder of the impact that lawsuits can have…just like I did during a drive home on country road on a cold, winter night.