Trial set for February in litigation resulting from 1993 train wreck

By Michael Wilson

Mobile Register

Attorneys for Amtrak and CSX Transportation asked a federal judge Monday to drop the companies from the dozens of lawsuits rising out of the 1993 Sunset Limited derailment in Bayou Canot that killed 47 people.

Trial in the case is set for February in U.S. District Court in Mobile. Lost in the fog just northeast of Mobile, a tow-boat pilot bumped a barge into a bridge support early the morning of Sept. 22, 1993, bending the tracks above.

About five minutes later, the Amtrak liner Sunset Limited, carrying 210 passengers, hit the bent tracks and flew into the water below. The train wreck remains the worst in the country’s history.

Dozens of passengers sued Amtrak, CSX, which owns the bridge, and Warrior & Gulf Navigation, owner of the tow boat Mauvilla, which hit the bridge.

Also named as defendants are tow boat pilot Willie Odom, at the wheel at the time of the accident, and captain Andrew Stabler, who was off watch and asleep at the time.

The crash spun a web of lawsuits that charge and countercharge blame and fault. The cases were consolidated into one to be heard before U.S. District Judge Richard Vollmer in Mobile.

Forty-two plaintiffs are survivors of crash victims suing Amtrak and CSX for wrongful death; they have settled out of court with Warrior & Gulf. Seventeen plaintiffs are suing all three defendants with personal-injury claims, while many more than that have settled.

But Amtrak and CSX argued Monday, in motions for summary judgment, that under the law, they’re not to blame for the wreck.

Plaintiffs argue that CSX should have had lights on the bridge and other safety features in place to prevent a barge accident. The bridge was built in 1882, and had been hit by boats at least three times by 1993, but the U.S. Coast Guard never considered that finger of the bayou to be a navigable waterway. CSX lawyers argued Monday that the Coast Guard never demanded additional safety features, such as lights, because no one could have predicted an accident like the Mauvilla’s.

Amtrak, in turn, has argued that it doesn’t own the bridge; it only uses it, as do several other train lines, and can’t be held any more liable for its construction than an airline can be considered responsible for every runway its airplanes use.

“Amtrak didn’t have the obligation to guarantee everything that happened to its passenger’s,” said Amtrak lawyer Heidi Hubbard of Washington, D.C.

Plaintiff’s lawyer Greg Breedlove urged Vollmer to keep the defendants in the case until trial.

“They are attempting to deprive the families of victims the right to have a jury decide this case,” Breedlove said. “Why? A technicality, that’s what I call it.”

“The law is not a technicality,” Ms. Hubbard responded later.

Vollmer did not rule on the defense motions Monday. The hearing continues today.

The judge also questioned attorneys about the damages phase of the trial, in which jurors determine how much money to award the survivors and families of the dead. The trial is expected to last a month - or longer if it’s broken into separate wrongful-death and personal-injury trials - with a damages phase to follow.

A ruling in the case in September 1997 by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta prevents survivors from collecting punitive damages under Alabama’s tort laws. Punitive damages are designed to punish the defendant, and the ruling was a blow to the survivors, who look to collect less under the maritime laws that apply to the crash.

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