Teen asks Congress to lift cap in train wrecks

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Rescue crews use heavy equipment to dismantle the damaged trains and continue to search for survivors at the site of a train crash on Sept. 13, 2008 in Chatsworth, Calif.

A teen-ager girl whose father was killed in a 2008 commuter train crash in California took aim Thursday at a federal law that caps legal settlements involving rail accidents at $200 million.

Fifteen-year-old Mackenzie Souser of Camarillo, Calif., explained to a House panel what life has been like since her father, Doyle Souser, lost his life in the head-on train collision in Los Angeles County. In all, 25 people were killed and more than 100 were injured.

She spoke on behalf of legislation sponsored by Republican Rep. Elton Gallegly of California that would lift the cap on damages to $275 million.

She said her dad always taught her to assume full responsibility when she hurt others, but that was not happening now with Veolia Transportation, whose subsidiary employed the engineer cited by federal officials as responsible for the crash.

"My dad knew that being 100 percent responsible was not only fair to the person that I hurt," Souser said. "He also knew that if I had to be fully responsible for any harm I caused, I would be more careful about my actions in the future."

Gallegly said that most of those harmed in the train collision were his constituents. It's his belief that the $200 million settlement in the case won't come close to covering the future medical expenses that the injured will incur over the coming years, or fairly compensate the families of those killed. That's why he's trying to raise the cap through longshot legislation.

Gallegly said Veolia had a culture of ignoring risk, and he repeated findings from the National Transportation Safety Board that the locomotive engineer driving the passenger train failed to comply with a red signal at about the same time he was sending a text message. The train ended up colliding with a Union Pacific freight train near Chatsworth, Calif. It was the worst train accident in state history.

"This was a tragedy, but it was not an accident and it should have never happened," Gallegly said.

Veolia Transportation disputed Gallegly's view of the settlement as inadequate. Alan Moldawer, a company vice president and general counsel, said only a small number of claimants and their lawyers have expressed the view that $200 million is inadequate.

"The $200 million fund is the largest financial recovery fund in the history of passenger rail," Modawer said.

Modawer said the company also disputed the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board that the engineer's distracted driving was responsible for the crash. The damages cap played an important role in the company and insurers putting aside what likely would have been protracted litigation over the crash.

The $200 million cap is a result of legislation passed in 1997. Congress set the liability cap to help keep passenger train systems such as Amtrak operating when faced with major lawsuits. But Gallegly said the bill failed to allow the cap to keep up with inflation, and he noted that medical expenses have soared over the past 15 years.

Gallegly and Souser spoke to a panel that's part of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The 15-year-old was remarkably composed throughout her testimony, except for a moment when she talked about life without her father.

"I am simply not a normal teenager without my dad. The best part of every day was when my dad came home from work and our family had dinner together," she said shortly before breaking into tears. "I struggle every day with the fact that my dad, who was the sole breadwinner for our family, isn't coming home ever again."

© 2011 The Associated Press.

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