Train derailed five years ago, killing 42 passengers whose survivors sued

By Michael Wilson

Amtrak is just a signature away from a final out-of-court settlement with family members of 42 passengers who died in the 1993 Sunset Limited derailment, attorneys said Tuesday.

“We’re close, but we haven’t quite closed the gap yet,” said plaintiffs’ lawyer Gregory Breedlove of Mobile.

A settlement would spare Amtrak and CSX Transportation a long trial filled with graphic and emotional testimony about the passengers’ deaths and a potentially huge jury verdict against the companies.

On Sept. 22, 1993, a towboat lost in fog rammed a barge into the railroad bridge spanning Bayou Canot northeast of Mobile. Five minutes later, the Sunset Limited, carrying 210 passengers, hit the damaged tracks and sailed into the water. Forty-seven people died, including five crew members. The train wreck remains the worst in the country’s history.

Warrior & Gulf Navigation, the towboat’s owner, has already settled the case with payouts to the 42 passengers’ families. An Amtrak/CSX settlement would dispose of the wrongful-death cases and limit the projected February trial to a handful of personal-injury cases and a property dispute over damages to the train.

After spending the day behind closed doors in the U.S. District courthouse in Mobile, attorneys for the families, Amtrak and CSX, the bridge owner, left the building with no scheduled return date. The deal discussed Tuesday awaits the signature of an Amtrak senior administrator, attorneys said.

“We’re supposed to know something within 24 hours,” said plaintiffs’ lawyer James J. Thompson of Birmingham.

Lawyers for Amtrak, CSX and Warrior & Gulf declined comment, citing instuctions from U.S. District Judge Richard Vollmer not to discuss the case with the press. Several of the lawyers have spent five years on the case, preparing for a trial that now may not happen.

“What we lawyers have to look out for is our clients’ best interests,” Breedlove said, declining to give specifics of the settlement. “We feel they’ve been very well served.”

A wrongful-death trial would have taken the judge into new legal ground in deciding how much damages plaintiffs could seek under maritime law - for example, whether jurors could consider pain and suffering of the passengers between the time of the wreck and their deaths as the cars filled with smoke and water, or the loss of companionship and service to the victims’ families.

On Monday, lawyers for CSX and Amtrak argued that the companies should be dropped from the case, leaving liability for the wreck to hang on Warrior & Gulf, its pilot Willie Odom and captain Andrew Stabler. Vollmer did not rule on those motions.

The lawyers returned to court Tuesday for further arguments, but Vollmer instructed them instead to meet privately and discuss a settlement to the case. The discussions lasted more than two hours before Vollmer called the lawyers into his chambers, then released them and recessed the hearing.