U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton said in court today that relations between the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and its co-defendants in litigation surrounding a fatal 2009 train crash in Northeast Washington "have broken down."
The statement was meant to explain a dramatic change of circumstances in the case in recent weeks. A month ago, Metro and its three corporate co-defendants had told Walton they all planned to stipulate to liability in the crash. Now, the corporate defendants are pursuing motions for summary judgment that would place any blame squarely on Metro.
Walton said today that he couldn't explain the situation further, since the relevant proceedings and filings are under seal. However, he said that "a problem" had come up among the defendants, prompting him to allow the corporate co-defendants to renew motions for summary judgment that they had previously withdrawn.
The June 22, 2009 crash of two Red Line trains at the Fort Totten station killed nine people and wounded dozens more. The majority of cases filed after the crash settled, but four cases – two wrongful death lawsuits, and two personal injury lawsuits – were scheduled for trial.
In light of the now-pending motions for summary judgment, Walton delayed the trial scheduled to begin April 2 in the personal injury cases. Walton said he would attempt to resolve the new motions soon, but might not be able to do so until the summer because of a busy docket.
The two wrongful death trials were scheduled to begin this month, but Walton delayed them to the fall because of statements made to the media last month by plaintiffs and their lawyers that the judge said had “poisoned” the jury pool.
The three corporate defendants – Alstom Signaling Inc., Ansaldo STS USA and ARINC Inc. – began filing sealed motions in late February. According to a motion to unseal (PDF) those documents filed today by one lead plaintiffs’ counsel, Patrick Regan of Washington’s Regan, Zambri & Long, at least some of the filings were related to whatever problems led to the renewed motions for summary judgment.
Regan is representing the family of Ana Fernandez, one of those killed in the crash. He argued that because plaintiffs’ counsel have not been allowed to see the sealed filings or participate in the related proceedings, his client was “seriously prejudiced.” That motion did not come up during today’s court hearing.
Walton has expressed concern that the highly public nature of the cases will make it difficult to find a jury. He postponed the wrongful death trials after the family member of one woman killed in the crash discussed confidential settlement negotiations with members of the press, and Regan and other attorneys were quoted discussing the case.
Walton has said that he weighed whether a change of venue would be needed, but would make an attempt to find a local jury and keep the case in Washington.