Lawmakers Seek More Money for Calif. Train Crash Victims

By KEVIN FREKING | July 13, 2011

Members of California’s congressional delegation are calling on a French company to set aside substantially more money to compensate victims of a 2008 commuter train crash in Los Angeles County.

The 17 lawmakers argue that medical bills, lost income and other damages are sure to exceed the $200 million that was paid by the company, Veolia Environment, as well as Metrolink, which operates commuter rail service in Southern California. That amount equals the liability cap that Congress established for rail accidents.

Veolia is a company whose subsidiary employed the engineer cited by federal officials as responsible for the crash.

Federal safety officials said the train engineer failed to comply with a red signal at about the same time he was sending a text message. The train ended up colliding with a Union Pacific freight train near Chatsworth, Calif. It was the worst train accident in state history as 25 were killed and more than 100 injured.

Ruth Otte, a spokeswoman for Veolia said the chairman of the company’s board had not yet seen the letter, so she did not have an immediate response Monday. The company has consistently disputed statements that the settlement was inadequate, noting that it’s the largest financial recovery in the history of passenger rail.

The company has also disputed the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board that the engineer’s distracted driving was responsible for the crash. As a result, the damages cap played an important role in the company and insurers putting aside what likely would have been protracted litigation.

The $200 million liability cap is the result of legislation passed in 1997. Congress set the cap to keep passenger train systems such as Amtrak operating when faced with major lawsuits.

But the lawmakers called on Veolia to follow the example of British Petroleum after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“In BP’s own words, the firm was obliged to ‘make this right,”‘ the lawmakers wrote to Antoine Frerot, chairman of the board of directors at Veolia Environment S.A. “Veolia now has the same choice. It can stand behind a statutory $200 million damages cap and leave the innocent without just compensation or it can step forward to ensure that no victim of this terrible tragedy is left unable to pay medical bills, stay in their home, or afford to send their children to college.”

Signing on to the letter sent Monday were 15 Democrats and two Republicans. They say the company can stand behind the cap and leave victims without just compensation, or it can ensure that victims are able to pay their medical bills and meet other expenses.

At a hearing in May, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman, said the $200 million would not be enough to cover damages claimed by survivors of the crash.

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