The Associated Press

Amtrak, CSX ask to be removed from suit in deadly 1993 train derailment

MOBILE, Ala. -- With trial set for February, Amtrak and CSX Transportation have asked a federal judge to remove them as defendants in a cluster of lawsuits suits stemming from a 1993 train derailment that killed 47 people in a dark, remote bayou.

Attorneys filed motions Monday contending the train and railroad companies were not to blame for the disaster, the deadliest accident in Amtrak history.

But lawyers who filed wrongful death and personal injury claims in the

case said victims and their families should be able to try Amtrak and CSX for failing to take steps that might have prevented the accident.

"They are attempting to deprive the families of victims the right to have a jury decide this case," said plaintiffs' lawyer Greg Breedlove.

The derailment occurred before dawn on Sept. 22, 1993, when a tow-boat

pilot got lost in dense fog and plowed a barge into a railroad bridge on a bayou north of Mobile. A few minutes later, the Amtrak passenger train Sunset Limited, with 210 passengers aboard, hit the bent tracks and plunged into the murky bayou. Forty-two passengers and five crew members died, many drowning in a submerged train car.

More than 100 suits were filed against Amtrak, CSX and Warrior & Gulf

Navigation. CSX owns the bridge, while Warrior & Gulf owned the tow boat Mauvilla that crashed the barge into the bridge.

Mauvilla's pilot, Willie Odom, and captain, Andrew Stabler, were also named as defendants. Odom was piloting the boat at the time of the accident while Stabler was off duty and asleep.

Many of the lawsuits were settled, with the remaining cases consolidated into one scheduled to be heard by U.S. District Judge Richard Vollmer.

Family members of 42 victims are suing Amtrak and CSX for wrongful death after settling with Warrior & Gulf. Seventeen other plaintiffs are bringing personal-injury claims against all three companies.

Opposing the motions to release Amtrak and CSX from the case, plaintiffs' attorneys argue that CSX should have had lights and other safety features in place to prevent barge collisions.

But CSX contends the Coast Guard never ordered additional safety features because an accident like this one couldn't have been predicted. Built in 1882, the bridge had been hit by boats three other times before 1993, but the Coast Guard doesn't consider that part of the bayou to be a navigable waterway.

Amtrak argues that it only uses the bridge, along with several other

trains, and can't be held liable for its construction.

The trial is expected to last about a month.

Courts have ruled in the past year that the damage suits are governed by federal maritime law rather than Alabama's more lenient wrongful death statute, making it much harder for those bringing suit to win punitive damages in addition to any compensatory damages.