NO AMTRAK TRIAL
By MICHAEL WILSON
After five years of depositions, court hearings and appeals, Amtrak agreed Wednesday to forgo a trial and instead settle 42 lawsuits brought by families of passengers who died in the 1993 Sunset Limited derailment in Mobile.
The global settlement - one lump payout, to be distributed by the court - will be presented to U.S. District Judge Richard Vollmer of Mobile after the new year, plaintiffs' lawyer Gregory Breedlove said Wednesday.
"We're pleased, certainly, with the result," Breedlove said.
On Sept. 22, 1993, a towboat blinded by fog struck a railroad bridge in Bayou Canot northeast of Mobile. The Amtrak Sunset Limited, carrying 210 passengers, hit the bent tracks file minutes later, sending cars crashing into the water. Forty-seven people died - 42 passengers and five crew members.
Wrongful-death lawsuits filed by plaintiffs all over the country were consolidated into one mammoth, multidistrict case in U.S. District Court in Mobile. Vollmer ruled that Alabama tort law - known for its large rewards for plaintiffs - would take effect during the damages phase, but the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling. The case appeared poised to make new law when it went to trial in February 1999, as Vollmer decided how to handle damages in a wrongful-death case under federal maritime law.
But on Tuesday, at Vollmer's urging from the bench, lawyers for the plaintiffs huddled all morning with Amtrak and the railroad track's owner, CSX Transportation, in settlement negotiations. The towboat company, Warrior & Gulf Navigation, had already settled. All the settlements are confidential and will be presented to Vollmer under seal.
Lawyers for Amtrak and CSX have declined to discuss the settlement negotiations.
"We're certainly in the process now of notifying plaintiffs' lawyers throughout the country," then receiving their input, Breedlove said.
Dozens of personal-injury cases were filed by the crash's survivors. Most have settled; 17 were still open as of Monday. Trial in those cases, and in a separate property dispute over damages to the train, will take place in February.