Suicide on the Tracks Court Case Highlights German Railway Problem

Hundreds kill themselves along German railways each year, and train drivers will likely see an average of three suicides over the course of their careers. A case currently being considered by a court in the country could determine whether train drivers receive compensation for the trauma induced.

Nearly 900 people took their own lives along German tracks in 2009.

Nearly 900 people took their own lives along German tracks in 2009.


A current case working its way through a German court is drawing attention to a serious issue that is often overlooked in Europe -- the fact that jumping in front of trains is a highly popular means of committing suicide here.

The wife of a train driver for the German national railway is suing the parents of a 20-year-old man who died after being hit by a train in what is believed to have been suicide in January 2009.

Klaus and Martha S. still hold out hope that their son, Stefan, was killed in an accident, that he did not intentionally lie on the tracks. They buried their son two years ago, and tried to move on with their lives. Then they got a letter in the mail telling them they were being sued.

Proceedings in the case began at the Nuremberg-Fürth regional court in the southern state of Bavaria on Tuesday, where the train driver's wife is acting on his behalf as the plaintiff. The arrangement in the civil case is strategic. If the train driver himself had filed the suit, he would not have been able to give testimony as the sole witness to the deadly incident.

The man's wife has demanded €15,000 ($21,700) in damages, alleging that since the accident he has suffered from nightmares, sleep disorders and headaches. His struggle to overcome the experience also rendered him incapable of working for about two weeks after the incident, according to her case. Because the parents' liability insurance refused payment in the matter, the train driver's wife is now suing them directly. But Klaus and Martha S., still grieving, will not appear in court, says their lawyer Ingo-Julian Rösch.

"They can't help it, they have been shocked and punished enough," Rösch told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

The case raises questions over what, if any, compensation traumatized train drivers are entitled to, and whether inadvertently aiding in the suicide of others should be considered an occupational hazard. Indeed, the parents' lawyer has argued that the train driver's trauma was precisely that -- an occupational hazard. If the train driver's case is successful, it could trigger a landslide of similar lawsuits. In 2008, some 714 people took their lives along German rail lines. The following year it was the preferred suicide method for another 875 according to official statistics provided by the German Federal Railway Authority.

Many regular train travelers have at least one story of delays to their trips due to what German rail provider Deutsche Bahn's conductors call Personenschaden, or personal injury, during onboard announcements. According to the rail workers' union Transnet, each of the approximately 34,000 train drivers in Germany will experience a suicide on the tracks three times over the course of his or her career.

A Wild Boar? A Deer? A Person?

It was 1 a.m., just past the Rehdorf station, when Stefan was struck by the train. As is often the case, the train driver didn't have enough time to prevent the accident. Documents from the investigation state that he heard a loud noise, assumed he'd run over a wild boar, and continued on. At the final station along his route the driver examined the engine car, but noticed nothing unusual and drove the same route back.

On his return trip, the driver slowly passed by the place where the collision had occurred, looking out of the window and thinking that perhaps he had hit a deer instead. On a third pass by the area, he thought he saw a human body. He alarmed a colleague, who later found Stefan dead.

Since this January the train driver has managed to lead a normal life without the help of a psychologist, his wife's lawyer Stephan Baumann said. But for two years he had "major problems" with day-to-day existence. The image of the dead young man plagued the 52-year-old's thoughts and dreams, the attorney said.

"He was hardly living," Baumann said of the driver, adding that the company doctor who deals with such incidents authorized sick leave for just two weeks.

On the first day of proceedings, Judge Jana Lux said the sum demanded by the plaintiff was too high, and suggested compensation of between €3,000 and €5,000 . The train driver's wife and her husband agreed to lower the amount to €5,000.

"I have no desire to go through it all over again," the driver said.

'A Pile of Money'

Now Stefan's parents and their insurance company have two weeks to consider whether they will accept the reduced demand for damages or face a lengthy trial. Their lawyer Rösch maintains that €5,000 is still a "pile of money" for someone who was ill for only two weeks.

"There was not much evidence of trauma presented," he said. "For two weeks of being out sick with whiplash, for example, one receives just €600 in damages."

But the the plaintiff's lawyer says the case has larger implications. "Who is thinking of all the train drivers?" he asked, citing online suicide forums where people suggest "using trains to die."

In another similar case, a train driver successfully sued the spouse of a 67-year-old woman who threw herself in front of his train in March 2005. The 55-year-old driver suffered psychological distress and was forced to go into early retirement. He received a settlement of €9,000.

Should the current lawsuit go to trial and end in a verdict, it will likely create a legal precedent for other similar cases. But the moral judgment has already been passed, Baumann said.

"On a human level everyone involved in these situations loses," he said.


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