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Lawyers Cite Fatigue in Fatal Placentia Rail Crash

Attorneys, referring to depositions by former Burlington Northern crew members, say the railroad should pay punitive damages.

June 12, 2005|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

A freight train conductor blamed for a crash that killed three Metrolink passengers and injured more than 260 in Placentia three years ago was tired after weeks of long hours and erratic sleep, attorneys say, citing sworn statements taken for dozens of lawsuits.

Although the conductor, in his deposition, said fatigue had nothing to do with the accident, attorneys say it could be an important factor in the crash as well as in their bid to win millions of dollars in punitive damages from Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp.

The attorneys, who represent the injured Metrolink passengers, cite the sworn depositions of conductor Dean E. Tacoronte, 41, and engineer Darrell W. Wells, 51. Both were fired by Burlington Northern, which blamed their inattentiveness for the accident in which their mile-long freight train plowed head-on into a stopped Metrolink train the morning of April 23, 2002.

"Me and Darrell, we were both tired that day," Tacoronte said in his deposition. He had worked 29 days straight in the weeks before the crash. "We were real, real busy.... I worked all the time."

"Turning and burning," was how he described his routine.

Attorneys say the statements of Tacoronte and, to a lesser extent, Wells bolster the lawyers' assertions that Burlington Northern should pay punitive damages for company practices that regularly put tired crews at the controls of freight trains.

The attorneys' views differ from the October 2003 findings of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the accident.

The board concluded that Wells and Tacoronte had been talking about nonwork matters when they failed to heed a yellow warning signal requiring them to slow down and prepare to stop at the next signal.

The investigators found no evidence that fatigue, alcohol, drugs or problems with the signals contributed to the crash.

Board officials say they can't comment on pending lawsuits, but that the board can reconsider its findings on accidents if new information surfaces.

Lawyers representing the injured passengers contend that fatigue is one reason why the crew was distracted while traveling through the sequence of warning signals they were familiar with.

Crew fatigue is a safety problem that has long plagued the railroad industry despite decades of effort to reduce it. Industry experts say that because of long hours and constantly varying starting times, engineers and conductors often don't get much sleep, which can lead to lapses in judgment and slow reaction times while at the controls of locomotives.

"This is more than one person making one simple mistake," said Wylie Aiken, a Santa Ana attorney working on the case. "There are things that should have been anticipated and stopped by Burlington Northern."

More than 150 lawsuits were filed against the railroad company after the crash; most were settled before trial.

Burlington Northern, which has admitted its liability, has paid more than $16.2 million in damages.

Aiken, who is coordinating the lawsuits for a group of attorneys, said about 65 cases remained open. They await trial to determine the amount of damages to be paid to the crash victims. About 35 are seeking additional punitive damages from Burlington Northern, he said.

Tacoronte, in his lengthy deposition late last year, said the company did not assess whether engineers and conductors were fatigued before they began work.

He and Wells also said that because Burlington Northern required crews to be available to work 75% of the time, engineers and conductors routinely worked long hours for weeks in a row.

A spokeswoman for Burlington Northern declined to comment on the lawsuits, saying company officials may not discuss pending litigation.

Before the crash, Burlington Northern, one of the nation's largest railroads, adopted several measures to help reduce fatigue. Options include work-rest cycles, such as a three-day weekend after working seven days and the ability to request up to 14 hours of rest if a crew member feels too tired to work.

In its defense, Burlington Northern is expected to partly rely on the transportation safety board's findings that fatigue played no part in the accident and that the crew misread the two warning signals.

Tacoronte told investigators that the first warning signal in question was green -- meaning all clear. Both Tacoronte and Wells said they could not see the next signal, which was red, until they were 400 feet away -- too late to stop. Transportation safety board officials, however, say the final signal is visible from about 2,400 feet.

Wells also told crash investigators that the first warning signal was green, but later said he never saw it and relied on Tacoronte's word.

As a safety precaution, railroad regulations require the engineer and conductor to observe signals and call them out to each other.

Tacoronte says fatigue did not impair his ability to clearly determine the signal's color.

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