$211.5 million sought in conductor's death, 6 rail workers' injuries First lawsuits filed in Silver Spring crash

December 19, 1996|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

The first round of lawsuits stemming from last winter's fiery Silver Spring train crash was filed in federal court yesterday, seeking more than $200 million on behalf of a MARC train conductor who was killed in the collision and six Amtrak workers who were injured.

The suits, filed against several companies, claim that a train signal was removed from the tracks and never replaced, that another signal malfunctioned, that exposed tanks on a locomotive fueled the fire and that windows on the MARC train failed to work.

Eight of the 11 people who perished in the Feb. 16 crash died from smoke inhalation, and witnesses said they saw people trapped inside trying to open windows of one of the MARC cars.

"This litigation will show the country the corporate culture of rail safety," said Lawrence Mann, one of the lawyers who filed the suits in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt yesterday. "Here, we have a number of glaring safety problems that came together at one point, and they resulted in this horrible, horrible accident."

One of the suits was filed on behalf of James E. Major Jr., 48, a Linthicum conductor who died on the MARC (Maryland Rail Commuter) train. Witnesses say Major tried to warn passengers that the MARC, bound for Union Station from Frederick County, was about to collide with the Amtrak train, headed for Chicago.

"This has been a tragedy," said his widow, Margaret "Peggy" Major. "It's ruined our lives."

The suit seeks $100 million in punitive and $8 million in compensatory damages from a number of companies. Two other suits filed yesterday on behalf of six Amtrak service workers also seek $100 million in punitive damages. Five of those workers are asking for $500,000 each in compensatory damages; one is seeking $1 million.

Suits on behalf of two other MARC train workers and eight federal Job Corps workers killed in the crash have not been filed. Lawyers familiar with the case said some families are settling claims while others are considering suits.

The suits filed yesterday claim that CSX Transportation Inc. improperly removed a signal that once alerted train engineers to conditions along the tracks near Kensington Station. The MARC was traveling at 63 mph when it slammed into the Amtrak train. It should have been traveling at half that speed, allowing the Amtrak train more time to switch tracks. Instead, the two trains collided on the same track, and the fuel tanks on the Amtrak train exploded.

The suits also accuse CSX of failing to fix a malfunctioning signal and claim that the firm used open flames, called "smudge pots," to keep switches from freezing. The suits say that a smudge pot ignited the fire that engulfed the MARC train.

The suits also claim that CSX and MARC failed to place a diesel engine at the lead of the cars, protecting the passengers in an accident. Instead, the engine was at the back of the MARC cars, pushing them toward Union Station.

A CSX spokesman declined to discuss the allegations.

"The bottom line is, were are extremely saddened by the tragedy, and our hearts go out to the people who lost loved ones in the accident," spokesman Robert Gould said. "Given the fact that there's pending litigation, we can't comment any further."

The suits include many of the same claims against the state Mass Transit Administration, which hires CSX to run the MARC line. An administration spokesman also declined to discuss the allegations last night.

The suits also accuse Amtrak of failing to use reinforced fuel tanks on the engine. The suits name the Sumitomo Corp., which designed the MARC trains, and the General Motors Corp., which designed the Amtrak locomotive.

An Amtrak spokesman said the company did nothing wrong, and he raised an early defense. "Amtrak was a victim," Clifford Black said. "The MARC train apparently violated operating rules and struck our train."

Pub Date: 12/19/96

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