9 December 2004

Smash-o-Rama

It was 3:45 p.m. on Sunday, September 12, 2004. A locomotive traveling at 43 mph and trailing 89 freight cars plowed into a car transporter high-centered on the tracks. Three restored Porsche Speedsters, plus a 1965 356 SC and a 1988 911 Cabriolet were demolished, and pictures of the event were soon all over the Internet.

Each of the Porsches was owned by European Collectibles (www.europeancollectibles.com), a well-known dealer in Costa Mesa, CA. The cars had been in a show held at the county fairgrounds in Ventura, CA, where the transporter driver decided to exit the facility by crossing some railroad tracks that passed behind the show grounds, rather than backing up a long distance to use the main exit. As the transporter was crossing the railroad tracks, the bottom of the trailer got stuck on the raised railroad track embankment.

Lt. David Wilson of the Ventura police arrived on the scene and immediately called the railroad to stop train traffic. At the same time, the driver was trying desperately to get the transporter off the tracks. But just a minute or two later, a freight train came barreling down the track and T-boned the stranded transporter, breaking it in half and sending collectible Porsches flying everywhere.

"We were able to get the driver out of the cab, luckily," Lt. Wilson said. The driver suffered only minor injuries while fleeing the impact, but the Porsches didn't fare as well: All five are believed to be totaled.

The losses were substantial. Two of the Speedsters were fully restored '57s, for which the dealer believed it had buyers when it decided to send them to the show. The third was the personal car of European Collectibles owner Nick Clemence, a black '57 with Rudge wheels that had only traveled 147 miles since a $175,000 restoration. The SC and the 911 had just been purchased at the show for resale.

Who Do You Sue?

Of course, the question that most interests us in this column is who do you pursue a legal claim against in a case like this? The situation is likely not as simple as calling your car insurance company, as you might not even be covered for such an accident. Many policies exclude coverage for losses that are incurred while a car is being transported by a common carrier. The reasoning is that the risk should shift to the transport company, and its insurance should pay the claim.

The transport company seems like an easy target for liability, but even this is not ironclad. Its legal obligation to you is to use reasonable care in transporting your vehicle to protect it from damage. This raises the question of whether the driver should have known he would get stuck. The law will expect the driver to have an appropriate level of skill and experience, but whether or not he should have recognized the problem depends on the physical characteristics of the railroad crossing. He is required to exercise reasonable care, but that doesn't mean he has to stop at every unfamiliar crossing and check it with a tape measure. (Note: Before you hip your next car, check with both your insurance company and that of the transporter to see just who is covering your car and for how much.)

How about the railroad? They were warned about the problem and didn't get the train stopped in time, but again, the legal question is whether they acted reasonably under the circumstances. It takes a long time to stop a freight train, and the one or two minutes that were available to get the message from the railroad's office to the engineer may not have been enough.

It sure seems like there must be a problem with the design and condition of the crossing. If the railroad knew about such a dangerous condition, and did not repair it or provide appropriate warnings, it could be found to be negligent and liable for the damages. Similarly, the fairgrounds could be found negligent if it was aware of the crossing problem and didn't advise participants of the danger.

Winning Is Not Collecting

As with any legal claim, however, winning a lawsuit is only the first step. Collecting your money can often be tougher. In this case, the transport company was a small, independent carrier, and its insurance coverage is unknown. It wouldn't be hard to imagine that the claim could exceed the carrier's combined insurance coverage, or even its net worth.

On the other hand, a railroad should have the "deep pockets" that would assure a recovery if liability is established. But that can be a two-edged sword, as its financial strength can also allow it to make the legal battle a costly one. One thing is to keep in mind is that you usually can't recover your legal fees in claims for personal and property damage resulting from negligence. The harder you have to fight to establish liability, the smaller your eventual net recovery will be. In this case, we wish the best of luck to Nick Clemence and European Collectibles. Though his inventory, along with his cherished Speedster, will likely never be replaced, hopefully he can avoid a long legal battle that would make this bad situation even worse.

John Draneas is an attorney and car collector in Oregon. His comments here are general in nature and are not a substitute for consultation with an attorney. He may be contacted at legalfiles@sportscarmarket.com.

6 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Ray Schlicht Arlington, Virginia March 12, 2014 at 17:03
    This past weekend I took my '67 Mercedes-Benz 250SL to Amelia Island for display on the field for "Cars and Coffee". Because I live very near Lorton, Virginia, I put the car (and myself) on the Amtrak Auto Train to Sanford, Florida (Lorton is the northern terminal for the Auto Train.) Before loading the car, I had to sign a damage waiver for the railroad because the car is an antique and therefore not considered a normal valued vehicle by Amtrak. It was fortunately an uneventful trip in both directions but since Amtrak is a common carrier, I wonder if I was covered for any damages that might have occurred? (Hagerty is my insurance company.)
  • 2
    Frank Wichita, Ks November 26, 2014 at 16:41
    OK Hagerty, how would you have covered these cars? I would think that the collector car insurance companies pay the customers for actual damages or for the "agreed upon" value. Then 'THEY' go after the offending party (parties) in return. But, the insured person should get their just compensation without any hassle. Am I correct?
  • 3
    Rick Carter Spanaway, Washington January 28, 2015 at 17:44
    I find a small problem with this story. First, the Railroad should NOT be held liable for the actions of the trucking company driver. As a retired Railroad Conductor, I can assure you that the Engineer did in fact do everything he could to stop his train once he became aware of the situation. Did he get a call from the Train Dispatcher? Probably not, given the time frame you reported. His first encounter was probably when he rounded the curve and saw the vehicle stuck on the tracks. I can assure you, he feared for his life at that moment and did all he could possible do to stop that train. After all, his life was in danger. The way the story reads,the train "plowed" into the truck. The truck was not allowed to cross in this situation because of the location. The fact that the trucker wanted to avoid the correct route shows his negligence in providing an authorized, safe exit from the fair grounds. That is his responsibility to his Company, the Fair Grounds, the owners of the cars and the Insurance Companies covering these cars, and to the Railroad. Therefore, he is responsible for this accident, not the Railroad. Also, the fact that the Railroad has "deep pockets" has absolutely no bearing on this article. In the past, the Railroad just paid any and all claims, regardless of the nature of the accident. However, the Railroad got smart and decided to put cameras on the locomotives to record this type of event and those tapes are used in the investigations. I can assure you, the train does NOT jump off the track and chase vehicles down the street or across the yards and "barrel" down the tracks and "plow" into innocent people or vehicles obeying the laws. To be hurt or killed at the tracks, you must come to the crossing and break the law. It is just that simple. If you cross at the designated crossing and obey the traffic laws,with a proper vehicle, there will be no problem. YOU have to use common sense while operating a vehicle and apparently the driver did not use common sense. He took the easiest way out and jeopardized his life and the truck contents, he also took for granted one very important thing-the life of the Engineer and his Crew on the train. A lot of times, after the collision, the train suffers a derailment and the crew is hurt or even killed in the collision. They have done nothing wrong, but yet they suffer. Why should they be penalized for the actions of an apparently lazy truck driver? I spent over 42 1/2 years on the railroad and have seen this happen all too often. I also spent over 18 years traveling all over Northern California giving classes on the dangers of railroad crossing accidents. This type of story really gets me upset. All the general public needs to do is follow the laws around the railroad tracks. I have been consulted by Attorneys and I have used my experiences and training to enlighten them to some of the dangers the Railroads and their Crews encounter daily. After my consultations with the Attorneys, they have a different point of view regarding this type of claim. Please, when you write these articles, have all the facts and report them responsibly. Ask a professional his/her opinion before you write such a one-sided article. Don't always put the blame on the people with "deep pockets". They may not be guilty.
  • 4
    Mike Forest Palmdale, Ca January 28, 2015 at 19:43
    I was there. It was the Ventura German Auto Fest and some friends and I had stayed a little late to look at some of the cars for sale. We saw the transporter leave the fairgrounds and commented about the value of the Porsches on board. It was too long afterward when we heard the train's whistle and then the impact. We were just leaving and one of us said that he hoped it wasn't the transporter with the Porsches but we soon found at that it was. My heart broke for the owners. We had seen the cars on display at the show and they were beautiful. I hope the owners get compensated fairly for their losses.
  • 5
    G. Ogan West Texas May 20, 2015 at 16:43
    Reading about the loss of those fabulous Porsches made me sick...I can't even guess how the owner of those cars must have felt! I'm sure no amoung of money, reguardless of where it comes from, can replace them in his mind!
  • 6
    B beede Hanford May 23, 2015 at 00:18
    I kept reading this article with the expectation that Hagerty would comment on how THEY would respond to the loss if the cars were covered by them. The absence of that commentary left me apprehensive about how much my insurance is worth with them. I agree with one of the previous commentors that owner should have been covered by his insurance company, who would then try to recover their costs from any or all of the parties to which partial liability could be assigned.

Join the Discussion