Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Court Throws Out Part of Metrolink Derailment Suit
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
This district’s Court of Appeal yesterday threw out a claim by victims of the 2005 Metrolink train derailment in Glendale that pushing trains from one end, rather than pulling them from the other, constitutes negligence, but left alive claims that the railroad holds liability for the incident.
Div. Three held that passenger equipment safety standards promulgated by the Federal Railroad Administration addressing the design and use of cab cars which control a locomotive pushing a train from the opposite end preempted any claim that the railroad was negligent merely by operating a train in the “push mode” when it collided with a vehicle parked on the tracks, resulting in 11 deaths and hundreds of injuries.
However, the court noted that plaintiffs’ claims that Metrolink violated federal rules and regulations, as well as the railroad’s own rules and regulations, and that it was negligent in allowing the vehicle to be on the track at the time of the derailment were unaffected by the opinion, and directed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Emilie H. Elias to conduct further proceedings.
Approximately 100 plaintiffs, consisting of passengers, railroad workers and their survivors, brought a consolidated wrongful death and personal injury lawsuit against Metrolink over the Jan. 26, 2005 derailment, which occurred after Juan Manuel Alvarez drove his Jeep Grand Cherokee onto the tracks and doused it with gasoline.
Three Trains Involved
Metrolink Train 100, a commuter train being operated in push mode, struck the SUV at approximately 6:00 a.m. and derailed. It then struck a parked freight locomotive and collided with Metrolink Train 901, a locomotive-led commuter train traveling in the opposite direction.
Alvarez, who authorities initially said acted as part of a plan to commit suicide, currently faces 11 counts of murder with “special circumstances,” and could face the death penalty if convicted.
In addition to their other allegations, the plaintiffs contended that Metrolink was negligent for operating Train 100 in push mode in an urban area with multiple grade crossings. The argued that the railroad “knew or should have known…there was significant risk of derailment if a commuter train would strike any object upon the track…in the push mode as opposed to in the pull mode.”
The concept of pushing trains, as opposed to pulling them, dates to the early days of the railroad industry, and the method is used in order to permit return trips without the need to turn a train, resulting in a significant increase in economies of operation and reduced equipment requirements.
Push-mode commuter trains were introduced in 1905, when the introduction of electric cars overcame the delays inherent in controlling a locomotive from the opposite end of the train. Cab cars, with seats for passengers and a control cab where the engineer can operate the train, were introduced in the late 1950’s.
Initial Ruling Reversed
Elias initially agreed with Metrolink that the federal regulations—which were promulgated in 1999 pursuant to the Federal Railroad Safety Act after five years of consideration and comments from members of the rail industry and other interested parties—preempted the claim, but later ruled to the contrary to the extent the plaintiffs’ claim involved the “time, place and manner” of Metrolink’s push-mode operation.
However, the Court of Appeal, considering only that ruling, held that Elias’ initial instinct was correct, and ordered her to vacate the order.
Writing for the court, Presiding Justice Joan D. Klein recognized that the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in CSX Transp., Inc. v. Easterwood (1993) 507 U.S. 658 raised a “presumption against preemption,” but she concluded that preemption was appropriate because the regulations substantially subsumed the subject matter of the state law claim.
Noting that “the regulations address not only the design, but also the use of the cab car in the forward position of a Tier I commuter train,” i.e., one operating at speeds below 125 miles per hour, Klein opined that preemption was appropriate because the “regulation of push-pull service…accounts for the operational and safety concerns presented by passenger rail operations in urban areas.”
In reaching her conclusion, Klein rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments that a finding of preemption would deprive them of any remedy, noting specifically that their claims that Metrolink failed to comply with relevant federal safety rules and regulations for using the push method, that it was negligent in permitting objects and persons to be located on the train right of way, and that failed to comply with its own rules and regulations relating to push mode operation remained “extant.”
Justices H. Walter Croskey and Richard D. Aldrich joined Klein in her opinion.
A spokesperson for Metrolink said the agency was “greatly relieved” by the opinion, and that it had “always believed and trusted in our method of operation.”
However, plaintiffs’ counsel Jerome L. Ringler of Ringler Kearney Alvarez in Los Angeles, said that the case was only a partial setback, if that, and remarked that his clients still had a number of strong theories on which to proceed. He told the MetNews that he remained “very confident” of success on the remaining theories, and said that he was even “more so” after recent discovery and the release of the court’s opinion.
The case is Southern California Regional Rail Authority v. Superior Court (Tutino), B200777.
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