Liability cap has Metrolink, crash survivors at odds

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Kim Nowacki/KPCC

Richard Myles of Moorpark, Calif., is one of the survivors of the 2008 Metrolink train crash in Chatsworth that killed 25 people and injured 135.

Attorneys for Metrolink and transportation contractor Connex appeared before a federal judge today in Los Angeles with victims of the 2008 Chatsworth commuter rail crash. The judge and attorneys began scheduling the legal proceedings necessary for a payout to the victims and their families.

The judge, George Wu, ordered Metrolink and Connex to deposit $200 million with the court by the middle of next month. Attorney Paul Kiesel is coordinating 76 law firms that represent more than a hundred plaintiffs.

"Those funds are gonna be deposited with the federal court and sit there waiting for the court to ultimately determine if, in fact, this deposit is the correct amount," Kiesel said.

And that’s the question: Is $200 million correct? Many plaintiffs contend that it’s not nearly enough — given that there are so many victims, and that individual medical bills for some injured riders have already topped $1,000,000.

But $200 million is the maximum payout for a rail accident under a law Congress passed as part of the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act.

"It was set back in 1997, and was done without regard to the injury or damages. If this train were pulling A nuclear weapon that exploded in Los Angeles, the maximun would be $200 million" Kiesel said.

The idea was to protect Amtrak — a government-aided rail service from being sued out of existence. But some plaintiffs argue that while Metrolink is that kind of rail service, Connex’ parent company Veolia is an international conglomerate worth billions of dollars.

Connex employed the engineer who exchanged text messages in the locomotive cab moments before the Chatsworth crash. Richard Myles suffered a broken neck that day. His medical bills are close to $1,000,000 , and he still needs more surgeries.

"We don’t want to be left holding the bag. We already were victims. We don’t want to be victimized once again," Myles said.

Changing the liability cap would require Congressional intervention. Congressman Elton Gallegly of Simi Valley is working on that. Metrolink and Connex have agreed to the $200 million maximum payout, saying it’s the quickest and most efficient way to begin compensating the victims and their families without more years of litigation.

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