The Journal of Commerce

Plaintiffs: Amtrak Report Won't Affect Derailment Suit

By Margo D. Beller

Journal of Commerce Staff

The National Transportation Safety Board's final report on last year's Amtrak derailment in Mobile, Ala., will have little effect on a lawsuit filed in federal court on behalf of crash survivors and the relatives of the 47 people killed in the worst accident in the railroad's history.

Gregory Breedlove, a partner with the Cunningham, Bounds law firm in Mobile, said the safety board's findings, released Tuesday, support the plaintiffs' contention that barge owner Warrior & Gulf, Amtrak and CSX, the owner of the ridge where the Amtrak train derailed, were at fault.

Three engines and two passenger cars of Amtrak's Sunset Limited fell into the bayou last Sept. 22 when the seven-car train rumbled onto the bridge at 72 mph shortly after the Warrior & Gulf tug Mauvilla crashed into the bridge while pushing barges in dense fog. About half of the 500- foot-long bridge collapsed.

Several survivors, rescuers and crewmembers of the ill-fated towboat testified at a hearing last year in Mobile.

Tuesday's NTSB ruling is "not binding on any judge or jury but is certainly indicative of the facts of the case," said Mr. Breedlove, who represents 20 of the individual plaintiffs and is co-lead counsel with two other attorneys for the Plaintiff Steering Committee.

Those injured and the dependents of those killed when the train fell into the Big Bayou Canot filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama for an unspecified amount of damages. The case is scheduled to be heard before Judge Richard Vollmer in December.

''We find it significant the NTSB said CSX and Amtrak have role in this as well," Mr. Breedlove said. "There is no question Warrior & Gulf is guilty of negligence."

Broox Holmes Sr., Warrior & Gulf's attorney, said the NTSB findings would have no effect on its defense against the plaintiffs, nor on its separate litigation against CSX and Amtrak to contribute to paying any claims against the barge company.

''These cases will be decided by a jury in a court, not by an agency of the government," Mr. Holmes said. "Lawsuits are not based on the findings of a report, but on evidence."

Mr. Holmes said Warrior & Gulf already has implemented a formal radar training program for its tug and barge operators. The NTSB had recommended the company implement a "recognized training course" on river radar navigation, equipping all towboats with a compass and up-to-date navigation charts and procedures for towboat operators to inform management when they are taking medication.

While the NTSB had been studying whether the tugboat pilot's diabetes medication affected his operation of the vessel, it found this was not a factor in the accident.