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In most long-distance trains, notably in Europe, there are big racks for the larger bags and a shelf above the seats that runs the entire length of the car for smaller ones. The latter is also used for large suitcases when the train is rather full.

Recently, I had put a backpack on the shelf and took appropriate care to position it correctly. Two hours within the ride, while I was not paying attention, my backpack fell on the empty seat next to me. It may have moved with the small shakes of the train at random moments, until it tipped over the edge.

In this case, I was lucky. There was no one in the seat.

But it could have happened otherwise. If the falling bag injures a passenger, or damages a laptop on the tray table for instance, who is liable and what to do?

This can especially happen in double-decker trains where the roof of the top floor is rounded, leaving much less space in the overhead rack. Hours ago, I saw a similar incident happen on board a German ICE, as the train took a turn at high speed and the centrifugal force was enough to move the item off balance. In different situations, a slanted stretch of tracks can cause the bags to slide off.

This is why I am wondering if bearing full liability would be the standard, or if the railway can be involved for "bad" shelf design.

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    Perhaps the first question is: If it's your bag, and you put it there, why wouldn't you be responsible?
    – Kyralessa
    Sep 12, 2023 at 16:09
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    @Kyralessa while the OP put the bag on the rack, the OP didn't cause the bag to fall off. As a thought experiment, should the OP be responsible if another person knocks the OP's bag off the rack while putting their bag on the rack? If you agree that the OP is not responsible in that case, then you have also agreed that the OP is not automatically liable in all cases.
    – Peter M
    Sep 12, 2023 at 16:33
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    The what to do is the same as after a car accident: Provide first aid if necessary. Write a report of what happened, preferably together with the other party. Get contact data of the other party and potential witnesses.
    – Joooeey
    Sep 13, 2023 at 11:46
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    My gut feeling is that the situation is very different between Europe and the U.S. Americans are much more obsessed with and afraid of liability issues than Europeans. Sep 14, 2023 at 8:23
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    @Kyralessa Because they used the rack as intended: To store a bag. If the rack fails to hold the bag, assuming proper usage, that may point to a design flaw, which may put the blame on the operator of the rack / train.
    – tim
    Sep 14, 2023 at 11:23

3 Answers 3

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It depends on whose (in)actions caused the damage. Perhaps passenger A was negligent in positioning their luggage in the overhead rack. Possibly passenger B was negligent in rearranging A's bag. Rail company C might be liable either because their engineer was driving recklessly, or because the luggage rack was foreseeably inadequate for securing the intended luggage (something with no edge). Then again, A might have put a too-large bag in the rack.

The situation with airlines is similar, except that there are regulations requiring airlines to check the security of luggage and they have to check luggage (and warn passengers about shifting luggage). Failure to check the security of a compartment would be an inaction that can lead to liability.

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    And it's not necessarily all-or-nothing. A court could find, for example, that the passenger owning the bag is partly responsible for negligently failing to secure the bag, but the railway company is also partly responsible for negligently failing to properly maintain the tracks to avoid rough sections.
    – Kyralessa
    Sep 13, 2023 at 6:58
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    @Kyralessa You can also say the rail carrier (the company operating the vehicle and not the company maintaining the tracks, which might be separate companies) could be liable for not offering a method to secure overhead baggage compartments with a door like is provided in most airline overhead bins.
    – hszmv
    Sep 13, 2023 at 10:43
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    I assume this question was moved to Law SE since the fault here would always belong to the Law of Gravity, without which the bag would not have fallen.
    – AdamV
    Sep 13, 2023 at 20:20
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I am assuming you are asking about liability in negligence, which requires breaching the standard of care when you owed a duty to someone.

Your stipulation that you "took appropriate care" answers the legal question: if it is in fact the case that you "took appropriate care", there is no liability for negligence for the bag falling on someone.

user6726 correctly explains further that if there is liability in negligence for the bag falling on someone, it would be on a party who (1) owed a duty to the person who was injured (or whose property was damaged); and (2) failed to take the requisite care.

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The answer is complicated. In Germany, there is a liability law, which even addresses trains specifically (in the first paragraph!): https://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/haftpflg/BJNR002070871.html

§ 1
(1) Wird bei dem Betrieb einer Schienenbahn oder einer Schwebebahn ein Mensch getötet, der Körper oder die Gesundheit eines Menschen verletzt oder eine Sache beschädigt, so ist der Betriebsunternehmer dem Geschädigten zum Ersatz des daraus entstehenden Schadens verpflichtet.

(2) Die Ersatzpflicht ist ausgeschlossen, wenn der Unfall durch höhere Gewalt verursacht ist.

(3) Die Ersatzpflicht ist ferner ausgeschlossen, wenn eine

1. zur Aufbewahrung angenommene Sache beschädigt wird;

2. beförderte Sache beschädigt wird, es sei denn, daß ein Fahrgast sie an sich trägt oder mit sich führt.

I couldn't find an official translation, so here is a Google translation (slightly redacted by me):

(1) If a person is killed, a person's body or health is injured or an item is damaged during the operation of a railway or a suspension railway, the operating company is obliged to compensate the injured party for the resulting damage.

(2) The obligation to pay compensation is excluded if the accident is caused by force majeure.

(3) The obligation to pay compensation is also excluded if a

  1. the item accepted for storage is damaged;
  2. The item being transported is damaged unless a passenger is carrying it or taking it on the train ride.

Depending on the specifics, the train operator or the passenger could be liable. In some of the cases you describe I would assume the train operator is liable but ultimately a court would need to decide based on the specifics.

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    It may also be that while the train operator is liable to the injured party, they are able, in turn, to seek redress from a party that stowed luggage negligently.
    – JCRM
    Sep 13, 2023 at 8:46
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    While that is the right law, you miss a very crucial point: it's extremely trivial to point out that the passenger that did put the luggage in the overhead compartment was negligent and thus not DB is responsible but the luggage owner. Also, the Beförderungsvertrag demands, that the luggage owner stows the luggage properly, which includes that it has to be stowed in a way that does not permit it to fall - which shifts the negligence to the luggage owner.
    – Trish
    Sep 13, 2023 at 9:41
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    @Trish I believe the law means that DB would need to prove that the passenger was negligent. I don't agree that doing so is always trivial, although DB would certainly agree with that position.
    – Roland
    Sep 13, 2023 at 10:44
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    absolutely @Roland,but that's for the operator and the allegedly negligent passenger to argue about, not the injured passenger
    – JCRM
    Sep 13, 2023 at 10:57
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    Again, that's for the operator and the alleged negligent passenger to argue about @Trish Given that it's for them to argue about, it's no surprise that the operator has done everything in its power to make such an eventuality unlikely.
    – JCRM
    Sep 13, 2023 at 15:12

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