Personal Injury Lawyers told Not to Accept High Speed Train Crash Cases in China

rail crashLast month forty people died in a high speed rail crash in China. The collision occurred outside Wenzhou, when two high-speed trains collided. The accident has raised questions about the safety of the Chinese high speed rail system which is now the largest high speed system in the world, just four years after the system opened. Shortly after the train wreck, legal authorities in China ordered attorneys not to accept personal injury or wrongful death cases. Lawyers we re also required to report immediately to the government the names of injured passengers or families of the deceased who come in for legal assistance.

The collision itself was a national tragedy. Given the approach of the Chinese government to insulate lawyers from the investigatory process, we may never know what were the true causes of this tragedy and how it could have been prevented. This is in stark contrast to how personal injury claims are handled in the United States and other western countries with progressive legal systems designed to protect the rights of personal injury victims.

A recent car crash in the news may help illustrate the point. On July 31, 2011, a woman was killed on Highway 580, on the Altamont Pass near Livermore when her car went off the road falling down an embankment over 200 feet. The collision caused her car to overturn several times and ultimately explode into flames. The cause of the accident is still under investigation by the police.

In this instance, the traffic investigation may reveal an unsafe road condition. The roadway may be lacking appropriate guard rails, have other improper grading, or there may be other roadway design factors which may have contributed to causing this crash. If that is the situation, a government claim may be filed against the State of California alleging a dangerous condition of public property. Once the claim is filed, extensive discovery can be conducted to help determine the cause of the accident, and whether the State of California maintained an unsafe condition on the highway.

As an Alameda personal injury lawyer, I was recently involved in the representation of a family which had a serious accident on the Altamont Pass. Their car also went off the road and down an embankment causing several family members serious injuries. During the course of the lawsuit, documents were obtained which showed that the CHP was concerned about vehicles leaving the roadway in the area of the accident and requested CalTrans to place guardrail in the area. Depositions of investigating police officers and tow truck drivers who worked in the area testified that they had witnessed in excess of fifty accidents in the area. This type of information became available only because we have a legal system in California which is designed to let injured parties perform extensive investigative discovery in conjunction with a personal injury lawsuit.

It seems that this type of open investigative process, designed to get to the truth, and protect the rights of personal injury victims, is something which is not embraced by the Chinese government. Unfortunately, there are many well heeled factions who would like to limit the rights of injured parties in the United States as well. Insurance companies, the Chamber of Commerce, and other corporate interests espouse something they euphemistically call “Tort Reform.” These so called reforms are really programs designed to limit people’s right to full discovery, to full compensatory damages, and to even limit the types of suits that can be filed. So the next time you hear someone talk about “tort reform”, you might ask yourself whether you would prefer your legal system to be more like the Chinese system or one that fully protects the rights of the individual.

Resources:

China lawyers ‘told not to take rail crash cases’, AFP, July 30, 2011
Woman killed in fiery crash on Altamont Pass, Contra Costa Times, July 31, 2011

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