The Journal of Commerce
Rail Crash Suits Challenge Liability Claims
By Rip Watson
Journal of Commerce Staff
The flurry of activity surrounding the worst crash in Amtrak's history has moved from the Alabama bayou where the wreck occurred last week to federal and state courts, where lawyers are positioning themselves to determine the financial scope of, and the liability for, the crash.
Even as the legal maneuvering advanced with the filing of the first suits this week, the National Transportation Safety Board Thursday said it planned to interview crewmembers of a Warrior & Gulf Navigation Co. towboat by the end of the week to hear their version of the accident that killed 47 people aboard Amtrak's Sunset Limited after the train plunged off a bridge.
Speculation has centered on the role that Warrior & Gulf's towboat, the Mauvilla, played in the accident, though its precise involvement has not been determined.
The company has stated the towboat and its barges were in the bayou where the crash occurred, but has issued conflicting statements over whether it was there on purpose or was lost. There has been much speculation that the barges hit the bridge and weakened it just before the train roared over the span.
The safety board also said it may complete testing on the speed-recording device in the train's locomotives, which may shed further light on the cause of the Sept. 22 wreck.
Warrior & Gulf has filed a petition in U.S. District Court in Mobile to limit its liability in the accident to $ 432,000, using a 142-year-old limitation-of-liability statute that could hold its loss to the approximate value of the towboat and its cargo.
A survivor of the accident, Carolyn Susan Frank, an Australian, moved Wednesday to challenge that liability lid.
According to maritime lawyers, it has been breached before in cases where the shipowner fails to show lack of knowledge of any defect in the ship, or if the crew is wilfully negligent.
To date, the crew of the Mauvilla has declined to be questioned, but Ted Lopatkiewicz, a spokesman for the safety board, said it and local law enforcement agencies were hoping to interview crewmembers.
Gregory Breedlove, a Mobile, Ala., attorney who represents Ms. Frank, said the challenge filed against Warrior & Gulf's liability limit assertion opened the door for attorneys to seek depositions, tapes and other material that could establish fault in the accident.
Suits also were filed by an attorney representing John Wilson, 62, and Ronald Quaintance, 44, two train crewmembers who perished in the crash.
CSX Transportation Inc., the railroad whose line the Amtrak train was using; Warrior & Gulf, and Andrew Stabler, pilot of the towboat, were named as defendants, court officials said.
Clifford Black, an Amtrak spokesman, said Thursday the railroad intended to seek damages from Warrior & Gulf if the barge company was found to be responsible for the accident, but he stressed it was premature to say that would be done until responsibility for the accident is established.
Amtrak equipment lost in the crash has an estimated replacement value of $ 10 million.
Warrior & Gulf has $ 3 million worth of liability insurance from the Steamship Mutual Underwriting Association Ltd., a shipowner-owned protection and indemnity club based in London.
Steamship is a part of the International Group of Property and Indemnity Clubs that provide such insurance.
If Warrior & Gulf's insurance is triggered, any claims against the barge towing company exceeding $ 3 million, to a maximum of $ 25 million, would be paid by the International Group of P&I Clubs.
Amtrak is insured against losses, but Mr. Black declined to state limits of liability. Amtrak typically seeks to recover damages from motor carriers that are found to be responsible for grade- crossing accidents, he said.
Because Amtrak indemnifies freight railroads whose tracks it uses for damage to Amtrak equipment or for accident liability, the passenger carrier ultimately may pay much of the cost of the wreck.
CSXT, which expects to complete work on a replacement bridge by Monday, could absorb the $750,000 cost to rebuild the bridge, or it could seek to recover damages from Warrior & Gulf.