Mobile Press - September 30, 1993

Australian rider says ceiling law is outdated and wants access to officials of towboat company accused in fatal derailment

A passenger hurt in last week’s Amtrak derailment has gone to federal court to fight a $432,000 liability limit sought by owners of the towboat accused of causing the wreck.

Carolyn Susan Frank, an Australian riding Amtrak’s Sunset Limited the morning it plunged into Bayou Canot, also is seeking statements from the tug’s crew about what happened.

“We are entitled to take some testimony from these guys,” Robert Cunningham, one of Ms. Frank’s Mobile lawyers, said Wednesday.

Warrior & Gulf Navigation Co., which owns the tug that was pushing six barges in the bayou moments before the derailment, is using an 1851 law to attempt to limit liability to the value of the cargo and the towboat Mauvilla.

Ms. Frank’s lawyers claim the nearly 150-year-old maritime law doesn't apply in this case.

The towing company has filed a petition in Mobile U.S. District Court denying any liability in the accident which killed 47 people.

U.S. Magistrate Bert Milling has issued an order prohibiting the prosecution of any lawsuits filed to recover damages for injuries or deaths until a federal judge makes a decision.

A hearing date on the towing company’s position hasn't been set by U.S. District Judge Richard W. Vollmer Jr., who will hear the case.

So far Warrior & Gulf hasn't released names of the four crew members on the tow boat.

Andrew Stabler of Atmore has identified himself as the tug’s captain and Coast Guard officials said Willie C. Odom of Mobile County was another licensed river pilot aboard the vessel.

The federal judge is being asked to dismiss Warrior & Gulf’s complaint so Ms. Frank’s case can be decided in Mobile County court by a jury of 12.

She claims her injuries resulted from gross negligence by Warrior & Gulf and the Mauvilla’s crew.

Stabler has been given notice that Ms. Frank’s lawyers will take his deposition.

Information being sought from Warrior & Gulf includes the name of the person having the most complete knowledge of the cause of the derailment, any warnings, or calls to Amtrak, CSX, police or emergency groups.

Lawyers also are seeking Stabler’s complete personnel file, any logs of the Mauvilla, all tape recordings of conversations the crew had about the accident and the tug’s maintenance and repair records.

“Everybody wants to know what the tugboat folks have to say,” said Gregory Breedlove, who also represents Ms. Franks.

He said she was here from Australia traveling on vacation throughout this country by train and had planned to continue her visit.

“She was fortunate in that she was not in one of the cars that went into the water,” Breedlove said.

Cunningham said he doesn't think the federal law Warrior & Gulf is using in the case applies.

“We’re going to go head to head with Warrior & Gulf the whole way on this business,” he said.

On Tuesday the families of two Amtrak employees killed in the accident filed suit in state court against CSX, Stabler, the Mauvilla and Warrior & Gulf.

Attorneys for Warrior & Gulf and the crew members have declined to discuss the litigations.