A Washington federal judge handed a loss yesterday to three companies sued for their role in a fatal Metro rail crash in 2009, issuing an opinion (PDF) denying their motions for summary judgment.
U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton found that there were too many facts at issue to make a judgment now, and that the case didn't present the type of "exceptional" circumstances that would allow him to pre-empt a jury hearing the case.
Victims of the June 22, 2009 crash and their families filed a slew of personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits against the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority and three companies that designed, manufactured and supplied parts of the rail system. Most cases have settled, but two personal injury and two wrongful death cases remain. The crash killed nine people and wounded dozens more.
Although WMATA and the corporate defendants – Alston Signaling Inc., Ansaldo STS USA Inc., and ARINC Inc. – told the court and plaintiffs earlier this year that they planned to admit liability, talks between the defendants about how to divide the blame had failed by the end of February. The corporate defendants reinstated earlier motions for summary judgment, arguing that WMATA should bear full liability because its alleged negligence superseded any negligence on their part.
The companies' joint motion for summary judgment boiled down to the fact that WMATA was accused of putting technology that was known to malfunction in service leading up to the crash. Even if the corporate defendants supplied equipment that was the defective or failed to do enough safety testing, they argued that WMATA's actions cleared them of any blame. WMATA and the plaintiffs disagreed.
Questions of causation are almost always a matter for a jury, Walton wrote, but there are exceptions where it's clear there was a superseding act. In a 1985 case cited by corporate defendants, for instance, In re Korean Air Lines Disaster, Walton wrote that while the parties agreed there were defects in an airplane's navigational system that caused the plane to veer off course, there was no way the system's manufacturers could have anticipated that the plane would be shot down by Soviet missile attack.
This case, however, didn't present those same "exceptional" circumstances, Walton wrote. He said that a jury could find that the corporate defendants could have anticipated how WMATA would respond to problems with its systems.
Walton dismissed each company's individual motions to dismiss as well. He did grant ARINC summary judgment on a very narrow issue, that if a jury found WMATA negligent, WMATA couldn't seek indemnification from ARINC for WMATA's own negligence.
The four remaining cases are scheduled for trial in the fall, although the plaintiffs indicated in their brief that one of the wrongful death cases is on the verge of settlement.
Attorneys for all parties have declined to comment, in light of an order from Walton earlier this year barring attorneys from speaking publicly about the case for fear of making it harder to select a jury.
The plaintiffs are being represented by Regan, Zambri & Long, The Cochran Firm and Alper & Mann. Alstom is being represented by Winston & Strawn, Ansaldo is being represented by LeClairRyan and ARINC is being represented by Baltimore's Goodell, Devries, Leech & Dann.