[This post has been updated]
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 liability admission was first reported by the Washington Examiner.
The accident on June 22, 2009, killed nine people and left dozens injured. After the crash, Metro, its board and the Tri-State Oversight Committee, the group responsible for monitoring safety, came under under harsh criticism from safety investigators, lawmakers and federal transportation officials.
The court documents say that “the only issue for trial is determining the amount of compensatory damages” for four of the remaining plaintiffs.
The transit agency has settled seven of the nine death cases, according to Patrick Regan, lead attorney for one of the victims.
The settlement amounts are confidential, Metro officials and attorneys for the families said.
Regan said there was “overwhelming evidence” that there was “reckless, careless and neglect” in the cases.
“They’re doing the inevitable,” he said of admitting liability and of the settlements. “We had overwhelming evidence that all were at fault and this accident should never have happened.”
Four cases that are left involve the relatives of two people killed and two people who were injured. They could go to trial in the next two months but could still settle, attorneys for the families said.
Dan Stessel, Metro’s chief spokesman, would not discuss the liability or the settlements. He said the settlements would not have any impact on the agency’s operating budget, noting “we have insurance to resolve these kinds of matters and our deductible is already covered in a reserve.”
Tawanda Brown, the mother of Lavonda “Nikki” King, who was one of the victims killed in the crash, said Wednesday that she’s disappointed with how Metro and the equipment makers have handled the possible settlements in the case. Her case is expected to go to trial in mid-March.
Brown said she and her lawyer 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. She said the defense lawyers had an attitude of “either take it or leave it.” She said she “walked out” of the room and didn't accept the offer because it was a “very lowball” 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.”
In its final report on the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board said chronic failures of track circuitry and a negligent safety attitude at Metro made the crash inevitable.
Federal investigators said a failure 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.
NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said during the final hearing that Metro had failed to prioritize safety at all levels.
It was “a manifestation of the sickness that was going on inside this organization,” she said. “They were monkeying around.”
In the months after the crash, several of Metro’s top leaders left the authority or were reassigned. General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. resigned two years ago, saying the agency needed a fresh start.
“I have decided that it is time for me to . . . provide this organization an opportunity to move beyond the current distractions,” his letter to the board said.
Since the crash, operators have operated trains manually while Metro develops and tests a new automatic system. General Manager Richard Sarles has said trains will remain under manual control until the authority is ensured it has a safe replacement in place.
Metro has also embarked on an intensive schedule of replacing track circuits and other equipment at the recommendation of the NTSB, which itself lacks enforcement authority.
In the months after the crash, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, the supervisory group responsible for monitoring Metro safety, was criticized as weak, ineffective and lacking authority.
Measures introduced on Capitol Hill sought to create federal oversight of subways and light rail systems nationwide. However, none were passed.
The District, Maryland and Virginia have strengthened the TOC, but it still has no authority to enforce standards or issue fines.
Long-term transportation funding bills before the House and Senate this week both contain measures addressing subway oversight, but huge differences in the versions may impede a final resolution.
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