Attorneys Look for Metrolink Survivors

October 2, 2008

Lawyers have begun campaigns to represent victims of the Sept. 12 Metrolink commuter train wreck that killed 25 people and injured more than 130 others in suburban Los Angeles.

Attorneys are running newspaper and television advertisements, and one law firm organized what it billed as a pair of town hall meetings in Simi Valley, in the heart of communities most affected when the Metrolink train taking commuters home from Los Angeles collided with a freight train.

The Web site of another law office advertised in the Ventura County Star newspaper includes a list of cases the firm was involved in where plaintiffs won multimillion-dollar jury awards after various railroad incidents.

The first of the meetings was attended by a handful of victims’ relatives and about 20 journalists who watched lawyers outline what they saw as Metrolink’s shortcomings.

R. Edward Pfiester Jr., an attorney with the firm, Hildebrand McLeod & Nelson LLP, said the purpose was to explain complicated rules governing lawsuits against railroad companies, but lawyers were on hand to talk to any of the relatives who wanted to know about the firm. Pfiester said his firm already has several clients in the case.

The case will involve massive amounts of money for victims and the law firms that represent them. Metrolink has said the train’s engineer was to blame for the crash after he went through a red light.

According to attorney Anthony S. Petru, from the same firm as Pfiester, Metrolink was insured for up to $150 million at the time of a deadly 2005 crash in Burbank that left 11 dead. He did not know how much insurance the company has now but litigation from the Metrolink disaster could easily push the limits on a federal law that sets a $200 million cap on damage payouts to victims of a train crash.

California’s U.S. senators have questioned that law and suggested alternatives, such as Congress making up the difference if the liability limit is reached.

Greg Keating, a law professor specializing in torts and professional responsibility at the University of Southern California, said in a telephone interview that members of the public often feel conflicted about law firms soliciting for business after a big accident.

“On the one hand, we think people who are wrongly injured have legitimate claims for redress,” Keating said. “But on the other hand, we are squeamish about making life and death entangled with ordinary commerce.”

Keating said law firms often seek multiple victims in cases because much of the work done for one plaintiff is usually applicable to other cases. Lawyers can get about a 30 percent cut of any payout, though this varies between cases.

Several grieving family members at one meeting declined to comment afterward.

Aside from outlining their legal options, Pfiester and several colleagues told those at the meeting that Metrolink has a “pedal to the metal” culture that encourages engineers to exceed speed limits, fudge certain safety reports and punish drivers that slow down too often and arrive late. He also claimed that grueling split shifts and tiring schedules contribute to engineer fatigue.

“Metrolink has killed more people per miles run than any other commuter railroad in the States in recent history,” Pfiester said. “There’s a reason for that.”

Ruth Otte, a spokeswoman for Veolia Transportation, the subcontractor that provides engineers and train conductors to Metrolink, said her company complies with long-standing federal rail rules and said it did not cut corners on safety.

Misinformation was being circulated about train companies and how they operate, she said.

“Safety is in our DNA,” Otte said in a telephone interview. “It is the top priority.”

Otte declined to comment on any pending litigation. A call to a Metrolink spokesman was not immediately returned.

Metrolink also was involved in a 2005 disaster in which one of its trains hit an SUV left on tracks by a man who claimed he wanted to commit suicide but changed his mind. The train derailed and hit another Metrolink train, killing 11 people and injuring 180. The man who caused it was convicted of murder.

That case generated 100 lawsuits, with 75 still pending, Pfiester said.

Metrolink is operated by the Southern California Regional Rail Authority, which has members from five counties’ transportation planning agencies. The agency has met in closed session to discuss anticipated litigation as a result of the collision.

Pfiester said as many as nine companies could be involved in any litigation, from the firm responsible for the track to the company running the signals.

Because it is a government entity, injured victims and relatives of those killed in the Sept. 12 crash have six months to file a claim against the rail authority. If the claims are rejected, plaintiffs have another six months to file lawsuits.

The statute of limitation for victims to sue private firms controlling different aspects of the railroad generally is two years, attorneys said.

The commuter train was heading toward Simi Valley, a Ventura County city about 45 miles northwest of Los Angeles, when it ran head-on into a freight train coming the other way. Many of Simi Valley’s residents take the Metrolink line to commute to school or jobs in the Los Angeles area.

Metrolink has said its engineer, Robert Sanchez, failed to stop at a red light.

Several teenage train enthusiasts told a reporter Sanchez sent them a text message just before the collision. The National Transportation Safety Board has said Sanchez did send text messages from his cell phone while on duty the day of the crash but has not revealed the times of those messages.

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