Earlier this week I wrote about the recent Portland Streetcar derailment that injured one person, damaged several cars and snarled traffic for hours. Late last night The Oregonian published comments by Portland Streetcar’s executive director that implied that no one is at fault for the accident. “It wasn’t an operator error, and it wasn’t a speeding issue,” the newspaper quoted the official saying, adding that the current focus of the investigation is on a “potential mechanical issue.”
The problem with this line of reasoning, as a matter of both law and common sense, is that mechanical issues also have causes. The officials who run the streetcar cannot evade accountability for their actions (or lack of action) by simply citing ‘mechanical issues.’
As Oregon Revised Statutes Section 30.265 clearly states: “every public body is subject to civil action for its torts, and those of its officers, employees and agents acting within the scope of their employment or duties.” In plain English this means that one can’t simply dismiss a serious accident like this as a mechanical failure. People build, purchase, operate and maintain mechanical equipment, and are, in turn, responsible when it fails.
This is not to point a finger at anyone in particular. We are still at an early stage when it comes to figuring out exactly how this week’s streetcar crash came to happen. It is a plea for everyone involved to keep an open mind, and for officials to ensure that the investigations now underway are thorough. In this regard it is noteworthy that the Portland Streetcar’s operators initially pulled four similar trains from service immediately after the accident, but returned them to operation shortly thereafter. If this accident was, indeed, caused by mechanical failure the question needs to be asked: are the causes of that failure now completely understood. If not, should the trains be back on the street? As The Oregonian noted this week, not only is this “the worst crash in the transit service’s 17-year history” it is also “the system’s fourth derailment.”
As a Portland attorney I will be taking a particularly close interest in this case in the weeks and months to come. All Portlanders need to be certain that this essential part of our community is safe.