Warrior & Gulf Navigation seeks liability limit, claiming CSX, Amtrak are to blame for Sept. 22 accident; trial coming up June 1

Mobile Press Register

By Renee Busby

Owners of a towboat that struck a rail bridge minutes before the Sunset Limited derailed claim the Amtrak train wreck was caused by the railroad's negligence.

Attorneys for Warrior & Gulf Navigation contend in a federal court petition that CSX Transportation, Inc. - the owner of the bridge over Bayou Canot - and Amtrak are to blame for the crash and thus solely liable for damages.

W&GN has asked U.S. Senior District Judge Daniel H. Thomas to either exonerate it, or limit its liability to the value of the towboat and cargo - $432,000. Thomas at a court hearing Wednesday, set a trial date for June 1, 1994.

During the hearing, W&GN attorney Broox G. Holmes Sr. told Thomas the issue of exoneration involves determining who was at fault in the crash. But attorneys for some of the passengers argue the issue of who is to blame won't be decided until the case goes to trial next year.

W&GN, owners of the towboat MV/Mauvilla, claim the lack of rail warning systems and lights on the bridge, and the train's speed at the time of the crash caused Amtrak's Sunset Limited to derail and plunge into the bayou, killing 47 people on Sept. 22. The towboat reported that it was lost in the fog minutes before the train derailed.

Thomas questioned whether Holmes could make claims against other individuals in a liability limitation case.

"The striking of the bridge may or may not be the cause or the sole cause of this accident," Holmes responded. "We are entitled to present a case that will, in our view, exonerate our client."

Attorneys representing some of the 163 survivors of the crash claim that W&GN's latest petition could prevent them from presenting their cases to state court juries.

Attorney Greg Breedlove told Thomas if he determines none of the companies are at fault, attorneys for the companies could argue to a state judge the issue has already been decided in federal court.

"They want to deprive my client of having a jury trial and determine who is at fault," attorney Greg Breedlove argued.

Steve Martino, an attorney for another passenger, said CSX and Amtrak could benefit from being brought into the case because the judge could exonerate them as well.

The petition filed by Holmes also claims the bridge owned by CSX Transportation Inc. was "an illegal obstruction to navigation."

At one point during Wednesday's hearing, Thomas asked Holmes if there wasn't something that required the towboat not to be there.

The petition also contends the passenger train was traveling at at "excessive speed" at the time of the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board estimated the train was going 72 mph in a 70 mph zone.

It also claims the bridge did not have a permit, fender or protective piling system or obstruction lights and radar devices.

The petition also asks for a judgment against Amtrak and CSX for damages to the Mauvila. W&GN did not specify an amount of damages.

Thomas set a March 25, 1994 deadline for submitting accident claims. He also ordered Amtrak and CSX attorney Jerry McDowell to provide a passenger list to the court so notices could be mailed.

McDowell said they will be filing claims against W&GN for damages to the train and bridge and for any claims that may be made against his clients by survivors and families of the victims.

"What they're (Warrior & Gulf) doing is throwing up a smoke screen," said McDowell.

The judge gave attorneys two weeks to file legal briefs on whether CSX and Amtrak can be brought into the suit as third parties.

The NTSB will conduct public hearings here on Dec. 13 at the Mobile Convention Center. Mobile County District Attorney Chris Galanos said he plans to have his investigation of the crash completed before the hearing.