Attorneys for the injured survivors and families of those killed in a 2009 Metro rail crash are preparing for trial next month. According to new filings this week, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and other defendants intend to admit liability, meaning the trial will be limited to damages.
On June 22, 2009, nine people died and dozens were wounded after a red line train crashed into a second train stopped at the Fort Totten station. The victims and their families sued Metro and a group of system equipment manufacturers and suppliers in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The majority of cases settled, including seven of the nine wrongful death suits, but four are scheduled to go to trial March 12. Of those, two are wrongful death cases, and two are personal injury cases.
According to a Feb. 13 filing (PDF), the agency and the other defendants – Alstom Signaling Inc., Ansaldo STS USA Inc., and ARINC Inc. – told the court on Feb. 1 that they had agreed to admit liability. They now want U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton to stop plaintiffs from introducing evidence about any alleged misconduct that caused the crash, along with “graphic photographs” and unlimited testimony from first-responders and the decedents’ families.
The defendants argued in the motion that evidence on the cause of the crash – a report from the National Transportation Safety Board, for example – is irrelevant to determining damages and would prejudice the jury.
“Here, admission of evidence concerning Defendants’ liability is highly prejudicial, would confuse the jury, and threatens to turn simple damages-only trials into a lengthy academic debate over Defendants’ respective fault,” the defendants wrote in the joint motion to exclude.
They made a similar argument in challenging the admission of photographs from the scene of the accident and from autopsies of the victims. “These serve no purpose except to provoke an emotional response and inflame the jury,” the defendants wrote. On the issue of witnesses, they wrote that “repetitious and cumulative testimony…would serve only to play on the jury’s sympathies and would provide no new relevant information.”
Lead counsel in one of the wrongful death cases going to trial, Patrick Regan of Washington’s Regan, Zambri & Long, said that “a lot of the stuff that gets into the details, no one intends to introduce.” However, he added, “we certainly do intend to introduce to the jury the role each defendant played in causing this tragedy.”
The defendants “want the jury to hear a sterile presentation without any facts of liability,” Regan said. “That’s not what the law says.”
Regan said the defendants first expressed interest in admitting to liability in January. The trial was scheduled to begin Feb. 14, but the parties asked Walton for more time to discuss a stipulation.
“We had developed overwhelming evidence that all four of the defendants were responsible for the events that led up to this tragedy,” Regan said. The stipulation “allows us to focus exclusively on the harm that it’s caused to this family.”
A Metro spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment this morning. Counsel for the other defendants also could not immediately be reached. Alstom is being represented by a team from Winston & Strawn in Washington; Ansaldo is being represented by a team from LeClairRyan in Washington; and ARINC is being represented by a team from Goodell, Devries, Leech & Dann in Baltimore.
A pretrial conference is scheduled for March 1.