Relatives of a victim of the deadly 2015 Amtrak crash have used a little-known provision of Pennsylvania law to push state prosecutors to file charges against the engineer — an abrupt turn of events in the high-profile case that last week had appeared to reach its end.
The announcement late Friday by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro that Brandon Bostian would face charges of involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment capped a week of legal maneuvering. Just days before, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office announced it would not prosecute Bostian in connection with the crash that killed eight people and injured more than 200 others.
The district attorney’s office said that while Bostian’s actions likely caused the Northeast Regional train traveling at twice the posted speed limit to derail at a curve, there was not enough evidence to pursue a criminal case.
But the husband and father of Rachel Jacobs, a technology executive who was among those killed in the crash, thought otherwise.
Less than 24 hours after the district attorney’s announcement, the two men used Pennsylvania’s private criminal complaint process to argue that Bostian should be charged.
As per the law that has been on the books for decades, but is not often used, they took their complaint to the district attorney’s office, which cited its original decision in deferring the matter. Then along with their attorney — Thomas R. Kline, working with Richard A. Sprague — appealed to President Judge Marsha H. Neifield of Philadelphia Municipal Court.
Neifield reviewed the complaint and on Thursday ordered the district attorney’s office to file charges. Because of their previous involvement, the office referred the case to the state attorney general’s office, which late Friday announced that Bostian would be charged with eight counts of involuntary manslaughter, one count of causing or risking a catastrophe and numerous counts of reckless endangerment.
As of Monday, Bostian had not surrendered to authorities. His attorney, Robert S. Goggin III, did not respond to requests for comment.
“When the district attorney’s office announced its decision, the victims of Amtrak 188 felt that justice had been derailed,” said Robert Mongeluzzi, who is also representing families and victims of the May 2015 crash. “Forty-eight hours later when the attorney general announced he would be filing charges, they felt that justice was back on track.”
Amtrak 188 had left the District and headed for New York on the night of May 12, 2015, when it entered a curve just north of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board determined the train was traveling 106 mph, more than twice the posted speed limit of 50 mph, when it hit the curve; the engine and all seven cars derailed.
Investigators said Bostian may have lost track of where he was and might have thought that he was entering a different curve where the speed limit is 110 mph.
It was Amtrak’s worst crash in more than 20 years.
In October 2016, Amtrak paid $265 million to settle claims related to the crash. Federal law limits how much money passenger rail companies must pay in damages.
Jules Epstein, director of advocacy programs at the Temple University Beasley School of Law, said the law allowing privately initiated complaints used by Jacobs’s family has been around for years, but is generally used in small disputes between individuals.
He said, however, that even though Bostian now faces charges, there is no guarantee he will face trial.
“There was nothing in the judge’s order that preordains the outcome,” Epstein said. “The prosecution may later move to dismiss, offer pretrial probation, negotiate a deal for probation or prosecute and seek jail time.”
A handful of other states have similar laws that allow private people to file criminal complaints, according to research done by Jeffrey B. Welty, an associate professor of public law and government and director at North Carolina Judicial College at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Pennsylvania law limits complaints to misdemeanor charges only.
The decision by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office came after a two-year investigation. In a statement that accompanied the announcement, the office explained why it opted not to charge Bostian.
“We cannot conclude that the evidence rises to the high level necessary to charge the engineer or anyone else with a criminal offense,” the statement said. “Nor do we believe there is sufficient evidence to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, criminal recklessness, which would be the only other basis for criminal liability.”
According to the office, Pennsylvania law specifically says that a person acts with criminal recklessness when he or she “consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk.”
“Based on the available information, we do not have evidence sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the engineer ‘consciously’ disregarded the risk,” the written statement said.
Mongeluzzi, however, disagreed.
“There is no doubt from the black box recordings that Mr. Bostian was conscious,” he said. “There is no doubt the actions he took were conscious. This is no different from a car wreck. If you are going 106 miles per hour into a 50 mile per hour curve, you would be charged. That is exactly what the attorney general said.”