Amtrak 501 Disaster: “shame on them” and lessons from the Ride the Ducks transit disaster

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My heart goes out to these families and first responders.  The horror depicted in the picture above pales in comparison to the inside of those trains, and the path forward after an event like today’s Amtrak 501 disaster involving multiple fatalities and dozens of injuries.

News is starting to break about potential causes.  Amtrak President and Co-CEO Richard Anderson said Positive Train Control (“PTC”) was not activated on the tracks at the time of the derailment.  PTC automatically slows the train if it senses the train is going too fast or may crash.  Railroad investigator John Hiatt told CNN, “If there was no Positive Train Control in effect there, then shame on them.”

Responsibility for this tragedy is likely to be complicated.  The train that derailed this morning was owned by both Washington State and Oregon Departments of Transportation.  Amtrak is responsible for service and daily operations. The tracks are owned by Sound Transit.  Because this was the “inaugural” trip, independent engineering and transit firms are also in the mix.

Karen Koehler and I represent 39–a substantial majority–of the victims of the Ride the Ducks crash, believed to be the worst mass transit disaster in Seattle history.   It involves many of the same issues likely to be investigated in the Amtrak 501 disaster: product design and failure, maintenance or operator failure, and fatal public transportation flaws.  With numerous parties and distinct legal theories, this is as complex as litigation gets.  These  cases require dozens of depositions, ten or more forensic experts, lab and engineering testing on an enormous scale, and hundreds of thousands of pages in documentary evidence.

In the Amtrak 501 disaster,  the NTSB will most likely release a preliminary statement concerning potential causes in the coming days or weeks.  The full NTSB investigation can take months or years.  The NTSB will ultimately hold a hearing regarding the information gathered and its conclusions as to the causes and responsibility for the disaster.  NTSB conclusions are not directly admissible in court, however, so the victims of a mass transit disaster still must investigate on their own.

A lot can be learned through comprehensive public disclosure requests and extensive fact-finding investigations in litigation.  First responders will likely conduct a review of the crash and their response to a mass casualty incident (“MCI”).  Although there are several definitions of MCI, it typically refers to an incident where the scope of the injuries and circumstances on scene force first responders to abandon the ordinary standard of care that would apply to one-to-one (or similar ratio) medical response.  An incident will often be declared an MCI during the initial response on scene, which signals to medics and other authorities that they need to triage patients and coordinate the scene.  From that point forward, first responders employ a chain of command with assigned groups such as Rescue Group and Operations.

In an MCI, documentation and immediate identification of victims can be impossible.  We took 19 depositions of first responders in the Ride the Ducks disaster to piece together the carnage of the scene and swift MCI response by the Seattle Fire Department.  After 30 more depositions, the truth reveals itself.

That is, after all, the main goal victims have–what happened to me and my family, and why?  I hope the victims of the Amtrak 501 disaster get the answers they deserve.



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