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Metrolink pays out $30 million in 2005 crash settlements

Plaintiffs' attorneys say the agency showed little interest in settling the larger cases in the crash that killed 11 and injured 180 until after last year's even deadlier Chatsworth disaster.

October 15, 2009|Victoria Kim and Jeff Gottlieb

After years of legal wrangling, Metrolink has spent $30 million to settle most of the lawsuits arising from the 2005 Glendale train crash that killed 11 and injured about 180, plaintiffs' attorneys said Wednesday.

Among those settlements are two injury cases, one for $5 million and the other for $3.8 million, and two wrongful death cases in which the heirs will receive $3.5 million for each claim, plaintiffs' attorney Jerome Ringler said. One of those cases involves payments to the family of James Tutino, a sheriff's deputy killed in the crash.

Documents The Times obtained through a public records act request show that most of the settlements were far more modest, with one person receiving $1,000 and many settling for less than $50,000.

The largest settlements were not included in the Metrolink documents because the paperwork had not been completed, Ringler said.

All but about a dozen of the approximately 150 claims and lawsuits filed against Metrolink have been settled, and the remaining cases are expected to be resolved in the next month, plaintiffs' attorneys said. Cases not settled are scheduled for trial in January.

The commuter railway released a statement Wednesday saying Metrolink was "working diligently to reach a fair and reasonable resolution of each of the few remaining cases in the Glendale derailments."

Although Metrolink has insurance, the agency will have to pay $4 million from its own funds, said plaintiffs attorney Clark Aristei.

Most of the cases involving serious injuries and fatalities were settled in a flurry of mediation talks in the last six months, attorneys said. Plaintiffs' attorneys said Metrolink showed little interest in settling the larger cases until last April, more than four years after the Jan. 26, 2005, collision, which was the deadliest in its history until last year's Chatsworth crash in which 25 people were killed and 135 injured.

"There was a sea change in attitude," Ringler said. "I think we developed liability theories that were extremely powerful."

The 2005 crash occurred when Compton laborer Juan Manuel Alvarez parked his Jeep Grand Cherokee on the tracks and doused the interior with gasoline in what he later claimed was a suicide attempt. A three-car southbound train being pushed by a locomotive slammed into the vehicle, skidded down the tracks and derailed. The lead passenger car crashed into an idle freight train, jackknifed and collided with a passenger train going in the opposite direction.

Victims' attorneys at first focused on Metrolink's "push-pull" method, in which trains are pulled by a locomotive while traveling in one direction, then pushed from behind when going the other way. Because the lighter passenger cars are more easily derailed, the catastrophe could have been prevented had the locomotive been at the front, attorneys argued.

Last year, an appellate court ruled that Metrolink couldn't be sued for negligence based on the "push-pull" method because federal regulations allow it. A 2006 Federal Railroad Administration report also concluded that there was little difference in safety between trains that are pushed or pulled by locomotives, and that abandoning the practice would be impractical and possibly more dangerous.

Attorneys shifted their attention to testimony by the southbound train's engineer, Bruce Gray, who took the stand at Alvarez's 2007 criminal trial.

Gray testified that in the seconds before the crash, he saw what appeared to be a reflection coming from a vehicle about three quarters of a mile ahead, according to Aristei. Gray said he became fixated on the glimmer, and when he saw an outline of the vehicle, he hit the train's emergency brakes, according to Aristei.

Plaintiffs' attorneys seized on the discrepancy between Gray's testimony and the data in the train's black box, which indicated that only service brakes were applied initially and that a few critical seconds passed before the emergency brakes kicked in.

Ringler said that if Gray had applied the brakes when he said he had, the deadly crash could have been avoided.

At the same time, Ringler said, the plaintiffs' case was complicated by Alvarez's conviction on 11 counts of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison for what prosecutors argued was a twisted attempt to get attention and win back the affections of his estranged wife.

Claims arising from the Chatsworth crash are in early stages. Plaintiffs' attorneys in that case said they were planning on having their experts review the crash site early next month. Attorneys have said those lawsuits will probably overwhelm a $200-million cap that Congress imposed 11 years ago on a railroad's liability in any one accident.

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victoria.kim@latimes.com

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

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