Transit Disaster

Amtrak 501 Disaster: Piecing It Together

The NTSB has started releasing preliminary information about the circumstances surrounding the Amtrak 501 crash.  Early information usually comes from easily verifiable sources like video and audio recording.

This KIRO 7 article does a good job of explaining NTSB findings in an investigation that is now expected to take 12-24 months:

  • Inward-facing video with audio captured the crew’s actions and their conversations. A forward-facing video with audio captured conditions in front of the locomotive as well as external sounds.
  • The crew was not observed to use any personal electronic devices during the timeframe reviewed.
  • About six seconds prior to the derailment, the engineer made a comment regarding an over speed condition.
  • The engineer’s actions were consistent with the application of the locomotive’s brakes just before the recording ended. It did not appear the engineer placed the brake handle in emergency-braking mode.
  • The recording ended as the locomotive was tilting and the crew was bracing for impact.
  • The final recorded speed of the locomotive was 78 mph.

The full human performance and human factors reports will take into account many more issues, but operator distraction is an obvious checkbox in transit disasters.

The engineer’s comment regarding the train’s speed and last-second braking may be consistent with questions raised about the Amtrak crew’s potentially inadequate training and lack of positive train control, which could have automatically slowed the train down from the 80-mile per hour pace prior to crashing.  This King 5 article discussing training also has a good video model of the crash.

Mass transit cases are inherently political at the local and often national level.  This KIRO 7 article explains how a WSDOT employee promised the Lakewood City Council–11 months before the crash–that the trains would have positive train control “before we start service.”  Of course, WSDOT has backtracked on that promise, releasing a statement that reads in part:

“David Smelser’s comment about PTC being operational at the time service started on the Point Defiance Bypass was based on the best information he had at the time. If the litmus test is that PTC needs to be fully activated to operate passenger rail service, then there would not be any passenger rail service statewide and in many areas of the country.”

Amtrak’s CEO reported that the company expects to have positive train control activated in the northwest before the deadline imposed by the federal government–the end of 2018.

This is litigation-speak.  They are saying that the standard of care for safe train operation is only the bare minimum of what the federal government mandates across the country.  That’s a lousy argument.  The initial deadline for positive train control was 2015.  It was extended after Amtrak and other common carriers threatened to shut down service.  As this article reports, “Critics [of the extension] have complained the agreement will result in a “blanket five-year” extension for railroads to install technology that has been touted as a life-saver that can prevent deadly train accidents. ”

We should be entitled to safety standards that meet our community’s expectations.

 

 

 

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.

Ducking Responsibility

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Saturday was the one year anniversary of Ride the Ducks Crash on the Aurora Bridge.  As you may know our firm represents 20 of the victims.

Last Friday, the owner of Ride the Ducks Seattle (RTDS) went on a media campaign proclaiming at every opportunity that he wants a “global mediation” where everyone can be treated fairly and the cases can be resolved.  This is an effective way for RTDS to convey in a single message to the media and the public that it cares about the victims and is taking responsibility.

But how genuine is it?

Ride the Ducks did propose global mediation involving five defendants and 60 or more plaintiffs, plus dozens more attorneys.  They did so by group email.  Not a proposed stipulation, not with prior agreement by other defendants, not an actual plan, just a group email.  Like how you might throw out an idea for a theme party.

For point of reference, things Ride the Ducks felt warranted actual letterhead or pleading paper have included (1) leveling personal attacks at/scolding Karen for posting a picture of the “Duck Nest” on social media, which RTDS has now broadcast on local news networks, (2) demanding everything we have compiled during our investigation in preparation for the litigation, and (3) scheduling meetings about the case schedule.

For further point of reference, the parties spent hours filing cross motions about when the trial date should be, with the defendants wanting to push it out to June 2019.  But this proposed early global mediation, where everyone will be treated so fairly, warrants a group email.

How else is Ride the Ducks taking responsibility and furthering its desire to globally mediate?  The company:

  1. Spent the week of the anniversary hounding us over our objection to producing the fruits of our investigation, and then, ignoring that we twice asked why the issue needed to be debated that week, unilaterally scheduled a discovery conference on Friday right before the memorial service for the Ride the Ducks victims at North Seattle College.  We were scheduled to attend to be supportive of our clients, because that’s what we do.  Context reminder: trial is two years from now.
  2. Hasn’t bothered to collect medical records to see all of the harm the crash caused (an obvious prerequisite for mediation), and yet…
  3. Thought it was important to demand the STD history of the victims in discovery.

 

What else is Ride the Ducks doing to take responsibility?  Blaming lawyers, naturally.

Brian Tracey (owner) stated to Q13: “Most aggressive attorneys will get to trial first and get the lion’s share of the money. I don’t want it to happen, I want everybody to be treated fairly.”

Here’s what is actually going on.  Many of the cases filed early after the crash had trial dates as early as November 2016 (two months from now).  All of the cases have since been set on the same modified case schedule with a trial date in September 2018.  Judges handling the cases have requested that all parties file lawsuits in time for their cases to be tried beginning September 2018.  You can decide for yourself if Mr. Tracey’s statement is (a) accurate or (b) a clever way to abscond with the moral high ground and blame lawyers for the lack of a resolution.

This is not the first time Mr. Tracey has gone out of his way to blame lawyers for his company’s bad PR.  He  blamed Karen and other plaintiffs’ lawyers for a “campaign to discredit RTDS’ safety worthiness.”  This is a company which, in addition to the horrific crash that killed five people, admitted to 463 safety violations.  A company with only half of its fleet allowed to conduct tours.  A company which, the lawsuits allege, declined to implement critical, manufacturer-recommended safety fixes “to avoid axle fractures” (what the preliminary NTSB report concluded had happened) that were supposed to be completed “prior to operating 2014.”  Somehow trial lawyers and their photographs of Duck vehicles are to blame for bad PR.

You can always keep blaming us lawyers if you want to duck responsibility.  We can take it. But don’t try to fix your PR problem by giving victims an illusory hope of closure for an extremely traumatic and life-changing event.  On the anniversary no less.  They’re suffering enough.

Here’s an article about the victims, which is what the anniversary should be about.

 

 



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