For lawyers preparing to sue over last week’s deadly commuter rail accident in the Bronx, their success in court may depend largely on two factors: whether human error caused the derailment and if state or federal law governs railroad safety.
Tens, or hundreds, of millions of dollars could be at stake, based on previous cases. A Cook County, Ill., jury in 2009, awarded more than $29.5 million to a Chicago woman injured in a 2005 commuter train derailment.
The investigation into the Metro-North derailment in the Bronx, which killed four and critically injured 11, has centered on the actions of the train’s engineer, William Rockefeller, who told investigators he lost focus right before the crash.
Investigators have said the seven-car train was traveling at 82 mph, nearly three times the speed limit for the curved section of track where it crashed. Authorities have not found any mechanical problems so far, but a safety system designed to keep an engineer alert was not installed.
If government investigators determine human error caused the derailment, the agency operating the train could be held liable for the negligence of its employees under a common-law doctrine known as “vicarious liability.”
This applies even if the MTA had no reason to question the engineer’s competence. “The case will turn on his conduct, not on the conduct of the MTA,” UCLA law professor Richard Abel said.
If the accident is deemed to have been caused by a mechanical failure, liability could be spread among several possible defendants, including manufacturers of any parts found to have failed and various contractors.
No lawsuits have yet been filed in the wake of the crash, but two attorneys are in talks with victims about potential claims.
Metro-North carries $10 million in liability insurance and the MTA has an additional $50 million through a subsidiary. The agency also has $350 million in coverage through commercial markets, an official said.
But there is a way for Metro-North to avoid liability — by arguing that federal law, not state law, governs the case. The doctrine, known as federal pre-emption, can acquit a defendant if he shows he complied with federal requirements.
Metro-North is also likely to argue that as a public entity, it is immune from punitive damages. In civil litigation, judges or juries often award damages both to compensate for injuries and to punish the defendant. But government agencies are often shielded from punitive damages.