Updated 2/29 at 1:16 p.m.
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton today postponed two upcoming wrongful death trials in the June 22, 2009 Metro rail crash at the Fort Totten station in Northeast Washington, citing recent media reports and comments made by counsel and parties that had "poisoned" the jury pool.
Nine people were killed and dozens were wounded in the crash. On Feb. 15, news broke that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority had settled lawsuits with seven of the nine estates and that the defendants had decided to stipulate to liability. The first of the two remaining wrongful death cases was scheduled for trial March 12.
Walton said at today's hearing that subsequent statements made to the media by plaintiffs’ counsel and a family member of one of the victims were inappropriate and warranted sanction in the form of a postponement. He denied the defense’s motion to dismiss one of the cases, though, saying that was an extreme move that would likely be reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
Three of the defendants, not including the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, had moved for sanctions in the form of a dismissal or a postponement. Metro did not take a position on those motions.
“The water has been poisoned,” Walton said. A gag order has been in place since Feb. 16. Attorneys involved have declined to comment on proceedings, citing Walton’s order.
Walton, in the gag order and at today’s hearing, has repeatedly expressed his concern about finding an impartial jury for the trials, given the amount of media coverage surrounding the crash and subsequent litigation. He said today that he considered whether moving the case to another jurisdiction might be necessary, but said he would attempt to find a jury in Washington first.
The trouble, according to the defendants, began with a Feb. 15 article in The Washington Post that quoted Tawanda Brown, the mother of Lavonda King, who was killed in the crash, speaking about confidential settlement negotiations. King’s estate is one of the two at issue in the pending trials.
Patrick Regan of Washington’s, Regan, Zambri & Long, lead counsel for the estate of the other decedent, Ana Fernandez, also spoke with members of the press about the defendants’ stipulation of liability, but he challenged allegations today by defense counsel that he commented on any confidential proceedings.
Regan and an attorney for King’s estate, Lawrence Mann of Bethesda, Md.’s Alper & Mann, argued against sanctions, saying it would be unfair to punish Fernandez and King’s children with dismissal or delays. Regan pointed to other high-profile cases where the courts were able to find a jury in the home jurisdiction, from the murder trial against University of Virginia student George Huguely V to the prosecution against late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens.
John Rosenthal of Washington’s Winston & Strawn argued on behalf of the three other defendants, Alstom Signaling Inc., Ansaldo STS USA Inc., and ARINC Inc. Rosenthal repeatedly asked that Walton seal the proceedings, citing a concern about further prejudice, but Walton said he thought that was unnecessary, since the statements in question were already public.
No attorney for Metro spoke at today’s hearing, since the agency was not a part of the pending motions.
The trial in the Fernandez case is scheduled to begin Oct. 31. The trial in the King case is scheduled for Nov. 27.
A trial for two individuals injured in the crash will proceed as planned in early April, Walton said, since the stakes are lower than in the wrongful death cases and, as a result, the prejudice wasn’t as much of a problem.