Two Lynn University students who tried to cross downtown Fort Lauderdale's railroad bridge early Saturday morning had little warning what was coming. Two signs warn pedestrians to stay off the drawbridge -- one is covered in stickers and graffiti and the other is about five feet off the tracks. Neither tells of what happens if the bridge goes up suddenly.
With no warning that the bridge might come up, Kyle Conrad and Joe Cundall set off across the span. They made it nearly across the New River when the bridge began rising. Cundall was later found hanging from the bridge's trestle. He was treated for injuries and released. Conrad fell to his death in the river.
Whether Florida East Coast Railway, the owner of the crossing, is responsible for better signs isn't clear. Federal regulations don't require it, and experts say railroad
companies often claim they're not responsible to warn pedestrians of the dangers of crossing on foot.
Federal and state regulations set rules mostly for vehicle crossings of railroad tracks and don't specify what kind of signs are required to keep pedestrians off the tracks, says Warren Flatau, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.
Train industry experts have even argued that signs can do more to cause accidents. "The railroad has to make a decision whether signage can be an inducement," Flatau says.
That doesn't mean Conrad's family can't sue Florida East Coast. A lawsuit can argue that the railroad should have done more to keep the two 21-year-old college students from trying to cross, says Carl Berkowitz, a transportation and traffic engineering expert who winters in Delray Beach.
"From a technical point of view, they're probably doing
everything they're supposed to do" to keep pedestrians off the bridge,
Berkowitz said. "But their attorney will look and see if there's more
that should've been done."
Like many wrongful-death suits, it's likely this one could end in partial blame, says Robert Hintersteiner, a transportation and forensic engineer in White Plains, New York. The kids were trespassing on the tracks and therefore partially responsible for what happened. But the railroad could have done more to prevent it, Hintersteiner says.
"The kids were wrong," Hintersteiner says, "but the railroad could have put up better signs."
Berkowitz says he has worked on many cases of kids hurt on railroad tracks. While federal regulations favor the train companies, the families typically prevail. "In the end," Berkowitz says of the families, "they typically win."
Florida East Coast spokesman Jan Maddux declined to comment. She said she'd pass a message to the company's legal department, which hasn't responded.