Metro, equipment makers accept blame for fatal Red Line crash

Correction: Earlier versions of this story misspelled the name of Ana Fernandez, one of the victims in the Metro crash. This version has been corrected.

February 15, 2012

Metro and three equipment makers have admitted liability in the deadliest train crash in the transit authority’s history, according to court filings.

Metro, Alstom Signaling, Ansaldo STS USA and ARINC said they “will stipulate to liability” at the trials in the remaining cases to “avoid the significant risks and costs associated with litigating those highly-contested and technical issues,” according to documents filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the District.

The accident on June 22, 2009, killed eight passengers and a train operator and left dozens injured.

The court documents say that “the only issue for trial is determining the amount of compensatory damages” for four of the remaining plaintiffs.

Metro has settled seven of the nine fatality cases, according to Patrick Regan, lead attorney for victims whose cases have not settled. The settlement amounts are confidential, transit officials and attorneys for the families said.

“They’re doing the inevitable,” Regan said about the admission of liability and the settlement agreements. “We had overwhelming evidence that all were at fault, and this accident should never have happened.”

In its final report on the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board said a malfunction of the automatic train control system was the direct cause of the crash. The system did not detect the presence of a train and directed another to advance toward it at full speed. However, the NTSB said, chronic failures of track circuitry, a negligent safety attitude at Metro and weak oversight made the crash inevitable.

The four remaining cases involve the relatives of two people who were killed and two people who were injured. Those cases are scheduled for trial in the next six weeks. Attorneys for the families said the trials will probably proceed, although settlements are still possible. Salvatore Zambri, one of the lead attorneys for the plaintiffs, said one of the cases that has not settled involves the six children left behind when their mother, Ana Fernandez, was killed in the crash. He said the case is set for a March 12 trial.

Dan Stessel, Metro’s chief spokesman, would not discuss the liability issue or details of the settlements. He said the settlements would not affect the agency’s operating budget. “We have insurance to resolve these kinds of matters and our deductible is already covered in a reserve,” he said.

The liability admission was first reported by the Washington Examiner.

Carolyn Jenkins, the mother of Veronica DuBose — a 29-year-old mother of two who was killed in the crash — said she has settled with Metro and the equipment makers but was disappointed by the outcome. She said the amount is confidential. “It was lower than I expected,” she said. “No money in the world could bring back my daughter. Her kids deserve to live a better life like their mother was trying to give them.”

Tawanda Brown, the mother of Lavonda “Nikki” King, 23, who was killed in the crash, said Wednesday that she’s disappointed with how Metro and the equipment makers have handled settlement discussions. Her case is expected to go to trial in mid-March.

Brown said she and her attorney met with defense attorneys for Metro and the manufacturers in late January. She said she was presented with a “structured settlement” that would have paid out $2 million over 78 years for her daughter’s two young sons. Brown said the defense attorneys had an attitude of “either take it or leave it.” She said she “walked out” of the room and didn’t accept the “very low-ball” offer.

“Getting on that train, she had high hopes and expectations for her boys,” Brown said. “Right now, we’re at the lowest point in their lives. They’re lacking the safety and guidance of their mother.”

Since the crash, operators have run trains manually while Metro develops and tests a new automatic system before it is put in place. Metro has also embarked on an intensive schedule of replacing track circuits and other equipment at the recommendation of the NTSB, which lacks enforcement authority.

The District, Maryland and Virginia have strengthened the Tri-state Oversight Committee, which monitors safety at Metro but has no authority to enforce standards or issue fines. Long-term transportation funding bills before the House and Senate this week contain measures addressing rail transit oversight, but differences in the versions might impede a final resolution.

Staff researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

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