Conrail denies liability in N.J. toxic chemical spill

    Conrail is claiming it is “exempt from strict liability” for injuries and damages caused by the derailment of a freight train in Paulsboro, N.J., in November.


    The statement comes as residents seek compensation for exposure to thousands of gallons of toxic vinyl chloride gas released in the crash.

    As a “common carrier,” Conrail and its parent companies argue that their hands are tied when it comes to transporting a toxic product.

    “The traditional rule says that because they’re a railroad and they don’t have a choice whether to accept goods to be carried — like hazardous chemicals — or not, then it’s unfair to hold them strictly liable,” said Jay Feinman of Rutgers-Camden School of Law.

    Feinman noted that this isn’t the only reading of the rules governing common carriers.

    “A number of courts have said, between [the railroad] and people and businesses who are potentially injured by chemical spills,” Feinman added, “the railroad is in a better position to control the risk, to ensure against the risk, and therefore, they should be liable for all the damage that’s caused.”

    In other words, the case is a question of whether residents or Conrail have more power to prevent this kind of accident.

    “Conrail is saying, ‘You can’t hold us responsible because we have absolutely no ability to affect the level of risk,'” explained Regina Austin of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “But there are other interpretations that say the people who live along the right of way have even less ability to protect themselves than the common carrier does.”

    After four tanker cars plunged into Mantua Creek last year, 700 residents were forced to leave their homes, some of them for weeks.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal