Judge Says $200M Los Angeles Train Cash Award Falls Short

The judge deciding how to divide $200 million among victims of a deadly Los Angeles County train crash in 2008 says it will fall far short of all the requests he received.

Attorneys for the victims had requested between $320 million and $350 million, and if each case were tried separately, the potential verdict would be close to that amount, if not greater, said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman in a ruling last week.

Twenty-five people died and more than 100 were injured when a passenger train collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train near Chatsworth, Calif. Federal safety officials said the passenger train’s engineer didn’t stop at a red signal.

Veolia Environment, a company based in France, and Metrolink, which provides commuter rail service in Southern California, agreed to pay the $200 million award, which was capped by federal law. Veolia’s subsidiary employed the engineer cited by federal officials as responsible for the crash. Lawmakers and victims had called on Veolia to increase its allocation for crash victims.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the engineer had been texting seconds before he drove through a stop signal.

“It is abundantly clear that the victims, and ultimately the federal, state and local governments, will be left to pay for their damages that have gone uncompensated by those responsible for this tragedy,” said Paul Kiesel, who represented victims in the case.

Portions of Lichtman’s ruling were blacked out because the victims have not been told how much they will receive. But Lichtman said that $4.2 million would go to survivors of each adult killed and $1.2 million will be paid for each child who died.

Lichtman said injuries from the crash were horrific.

Many victims in the first car presented emergency room and medical bills that exceeded $1 million. Future medical bills will reach into the millions of dollars for some.

He said the damages were so extensive that the court was faced with having little money left over for the victims traveling in the second and third passenger cars.

“Impossible decisions had to be made,” Lichtman wrote. “What was given to one victim had to be taken from another.”

Under federal law, a $200 million liability cap is in place for damages involving passenger train accidents. Congress set the cap to keep train systems operating when faced with major lawsuits.