A group of private companies sued over a fatal Metro rail crash in 2009 scored a victory yesterday with a ruling from U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton that the question of liability is still in play.
The plaintiffs — victims of the June 22, 2009, crash and their families — and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority had argued that the corporate defendants already admitted to liability and that they shouldn't be allowed to contest it moving forward. To do so would be prejudicial, the plaintiffs claimed, since they had been preparing for damages-only trials. WMATA, which is also a defendant, filed its brief under seal.
Walton, in an order (PDF) published yesterday, found that, regardless of any statements the corporate defendants or their lawyers may have made, the defendants never reached a formal agreement on liability that could be enforced by the court.
"Simply put, the arguments advanced by the plaintiffs and WMATA in support of their claim that the defendants have stipulated to or conceded liability in this litigation are in effect no more than a lesson in semantics," Walton wrote.
Nine people died and dozens more were wounded when one train slammed into another at the Fort Totten station in Northeast Washington. WMATA and the three corporate defendants, Alstom Signaling Inc., Ansaldo STS USA Inc. and ARINC Inc., which supplied parts of the rail system, informed the court and the plaintiffs in February that they planned to admit liability.
But by the end of February the negotiations over assigning liability among the defendants had broken down, pitting the transit agency against the corporate defendants. Details on what happened are sketchy, since Walton allowed documents related to those talks to be filed under seal. On March 2, the corporate defendants asked to reinstate earlier motions for summary judgment that placed the blame for the crash on WMATA.
Walton found that because the defendants never reached a formal agreement on liability, "it is only right to permit the defendants to defend the claims against them before a jury." He rejected the arguments that allowing the defendants to contest liability would prejudice the plaintiffs, noting that they knew in late February that liability might still be an issue and that the first trial likely won't begin until November.
Almost all of the cases filed by victims of the crash have settled. There are four cases scheduled for trial, two for personal injury claims and two for wrongful death claims. According to the plaintiffs' brief on liability, one of the wrongful death claims has settled, although an official notice hasn't been filed to date.
Attorneys on both sides declined to discuss the case or didn't return a request for comment. Walton issued a gag order in February barring attorneys from speaking publicly about the case, citing concerns that publicity could make it difficult to find 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.