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Four years later, survivors of Metrolink crash still hurting

Sept. 12 marks the fourth anniversary of the deadly collision in Chatsworth. Scores of victims still face the consequences of a federal liability cap they say has left them inadequately compensated.

September 08, 2012|By Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times
  • Jim Paulson and his wife, Nanci, both 62, are photographed at the Metrolink train station in Simi Valley. Jim Paulson received serious head injuries in the 2008 Metrolink crash in Chatsworth.
Jim Paulson and his wife, Nanci, both 62, are photographed at the Metrolink… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

Like other survivors from the crash of Metrolink 111, Mike Wiederkehr will never be the same.

Before, the Burbank resident was a triathlete. After, he could no longer swim or run because of shoulder, knee and ankle injuries. He had to transfer from his position as Glendale's public works administrator to a lower-paying city job because of post-traumatic stress disorder, a malady that also contributed to the breakup of his first marriage.

A judge awarded him $225,000 for the physical injuries he suffered on Sept. 12, 2008, when the evening commuter train to Ventura collided with a freight train in Chatsworth, slamming his body into the seats.

But after attorney's fees, medical insurance reimbursements and other recovery expenses, he has only about $30,000 left — far less than the roughly $480,000 needed to cover future medical and rehabilitation costs as well as lost earnings.

Wiederkehr, 55, is now thinking about postponing reconstructive surgery for his shattered ankle out of fear that the long recovery time could jeopardize his current job.

This Wednesday marks the fourth anniversary of one of the worst railroad accidents in the nation. The 25 people who died have long been eulogized and the resulting lawsuits closed. But scores of victims will still face the consequences of a federal liability cap they say has left them inadequately compensated.

Only a year after a Los Angeles judge rationed the available funds among 126 people, some victims are running out of money for care and counseling.

Others who were seriously injured remain out of work, retired earlier than expected or — like Wiederkehr — have been forced to take less-demanding positions at lower pay.

Even those who received the largest judgments because they had the most crippling injuries are unsure they can afford the cost of care and living expenses for the rest of their lives. And for those whose spouses, parents and children were killed, the money was often less than what other court verdicts and government studies have found to be the dollar value of a human life.

"I have seen people in wheelchairs and people with metal rods in their backs who will never work again," said Claudia Souser of Camarillo, a mother of three who lost her husband, Doyle, a certified public accountant and the family's sole breadwinner. "Some have five surgeries to go and the money is running out. This is an injustice. Four years out, I've learned a lot about grief."

Doyle Souser's body was the last to be pulled from the wreckage of Metrolink 111 after it crashed head-on into a Union Pacific train minutes after leaving the Chatsworth station. The commuter train's engineer and 24 passengers died and 135 were hurt, most of them seriously.

At the time, Connex, a subsidiary of the French conglomerate Veolia Environment, supplied and supervised Metrolink's train crews.

Federal investigators blamed the collision on a Connex engineer who, they concluded, failed to see a stop signal because he was texting on his cellphone. There also was evidence that Connex did not heed warnings about the engineer's cellphone use on duty.

In the years since, attempts by the victims to recover damages were frustrated by a 1997 federal law — the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act — that set a liability ceiling of $200 million per passenger rail accident.

Given the numbers killed and seriously injured, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman, who had each victim's damage request vetted for accuracy, asserted that the awards would be inadequate. Without the cap, he estimated, the judgments would probably total $320 million to $350 million or greater if the victims prevailed at trial.

The largest awards went to Racheal Mofya, now 31, of Simi Valley, who received $9 million, and Michael Kloster, now 52, of Moorpark, who received $7 million. Their attorneys had asked for $23 million and $21 million, respectively.

Mofya, a foreign exchange student who was accepted to medical school in Zambia, her home country, can no longer work because of severe brain injuries. Kloster was nearly cut in half when he was catapulted into a firmly secured writing table — a dangerous fixture that federal investigators had warned Metrolink about after a separate crash five years earlier.

After paying legal fees, reimbursements to medical insurance companies and other related expenses, Mofya ended up with $6 million and Kloster $3.2 million. How long that money will last is an open question, but Mofya will require expensive around-the-clock nursing assistance for the rest of her life and, like Kloster, faces the prospect of future surgeries.

Kloster, whose injuries are expected to shorten his life by 10 to 15 years, is now disputing a $1.2-million lien placed on his home by a health plan provider.

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