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Families Sue Railroad Over Derailment

Plaintiffs are seeking $30 million for ruined homes. The Union Pacific says it offered temporary homes and has paid for lodging.

September 23, 2003|Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writer

Three City of Commerce families whose homes were destroyed by a derailed Union Pacific train in June filed lawsuits Monday asking for $30 million and charging the railroad with negligence for crashing the runaway train into their community.

On June 20, a string of 31 Union Pacific freight cars slipped from a Montclair rail yard and ran out of control for nearly 30 miles toward downtown Los Angeles. Union Pacific officials tried to switch the cars to a side track in the City of Commerce, hoping that if a derailment occurred, the cars would not plunge into a neighborhood near the tracks.

But many of the cars did, destroying four homes and damaging several others. No one was injured.

The railroad has paid the hotel bills since then for more than 50 displaced people and has been negotiating to return them to their homes and apartments.

Over the last two weeks, however, negotiations broke down with the family that owned two of the destroyed homes and the renters of the other two now-demolished homes, prompting the lawsuit.

"At first they had me thinking I was going to have a castle," said Luis Vasquez, who owned two of the houses. Vasquez said that for months he and the negotiators had been engaged in what he described as good-faith talks about how and when the homes would be rebuilt.

"The railroad was saying 'We will make you whole.' We believed them.... Then they gave us an ultimatum -- take it or leave it -- and it was not good enough.... All we've wanted was to return to our homes."

According to Vasquez, a Union Pacific negotiator offered two weeks ago to pay a year's rent for his family but failed to offer any money for the reconstruction of his home. Vasquez said that when he turned it down, his family was evicted from the hotel where they had been staying, the Crown Plaza in Commerce.

Union Pacific spokesman Mike Furtney said the railroad had offered the Vasquez family a home in Montebello that he characterized as "much more than adequate." He said the family had been told they could live there while their two homes were rebuilt, and that the cost of rebuilding was to be decided upon later.

Furtney said the railroad had given all of the families living in the hotel 45 days' notice that the railroad would stop paying their hotel bills Sept. 15.

Union Pacific officials said Monday that they had done everything possible to take care of the families, noting that 25 households affected by the crash had already reached settlements with the railroad, which has spent more than $1 million on living expenses.

The other families in the lawsuit were renting homes before the crash.

Union Pacific said the families had been offered settlements of $75,000 to $100,000. The railroad also plans to rebuild the homes.

"Our goal has been the same as theirs," Furtney said. "And that is to restore their normal lives. We think we've done a pretty good job."

Each of the three families is seeking $10 million in damages, though lawyer Arnoldo Casillas said that he would seek more money if he could prove that the railroad's decision to divert the train in Commerce rather than letting it crash in a Union Pacific rail yard about four miles away had been based on relative financial cost.

Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission told Union Pacific it needed to pay more attention to rail safety.

The commission noted that the railroad had been involved in a string of accidents or near-misses since the June 20 crash.

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