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Wife of Illinois software engineer killed in Montana train derailment sues Amtrak as NTSB probe continues

The wrongful death lawsuit was filed in federal court in Chicago — where the Empire Builder train en route to Seattle originated

Overturned passenger rail cars sit beside train tracks being repaired Monday near Joplin, Mont., where an Amtrak train derailed Saturday, killing three people and injuring others. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
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An Amtrak passenger whose husband was killed when a train derailed over the weekend sued the company Tuesday in the first claim tied to the crash in rural Montana.

The wrongful death lawsuit was filed in federal court in Chicago — where the Empire Builder train en route to Seattle originated — on behalf of the family of Rebecca Schneider and her husband, Zach, who were traveling to Portland, Ore., when the train derailed. Zach Schneider, 28, was killed in the crash, while Rebecca was injured.

Zach Schneider, a software engineer from Fairview Heights, Ill., was among three people who died when eight of the 10 train cars derailed about 4 p.m. local time near Joplin, about 200 miles north of Helena, Mont. Dozens of others were injured.

NTSB probes fatal Amtrak derailment in rural Montana; three victims identified

The lawsuit, which also names track owner BNSF Railway, alleges that Zach Schneider died as a result of a “preventable tragedy” and that Amtrak and BNSF “had an obligation to prevent any trains … from traveling on their tracks unless Defendants could ensure that the tracks were safe.”

The suit was filed by attorneys from Philadelphia-based Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky, P.C., who represented victims in a fatal 2015 Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia that killed eight people and injured more than 200 others.

Attorney Robert J. Mongeluzzi said the firm will look at problems with the track and switches, as well as possible human error and the effectiveness of the newly implemented automatic breaking system — known as positive train control — and whether it could have prevented the crash.

“Trains should not derail,” Mongeluzzi said. “The passengers of those trains have no control whatsoever regarding the safety of their journey. And they put their lives in the hands of the companies that operate trains and the railroad companies who own and maintain the tracks. It is clear, without question, that something went wrong and horribly wrong to kill three people.”

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the derailment. An NTSB spokesman on Tuesday said “there is no new information to report at this time.”

On Monday, NTSB Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg said the train was traveling at 75 mph to 78 mph — below the speed limit of 79 mph — when it derailed, and gave no initial indication of a cause, saying investigators are not ruling anything out.

NTSB investigators are paying special attention to maintenance issues, Landsberg said, while trying to determine if passengers may have been ejected on impact.

The two other victims in the crash were Marjorie Varnadoe, 72, and Donald Varnadoe, 74, of St. Simons Island, Ga.

In a statement Tuesday responding to the lawsuit, the passenger rail said, “Amtrak is sorry for Mrs. Schneider’s and the Schneider family’s loss. We are offering assistance to injured passengers and employees and the families of those who have lost loved ones but are otherwise unable to comment on pending litigation.” BNSF declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The Schneider filing is the first of what could be several lawsuits against the railroads. Clifford Law Offices, a Chicago-based firm that helped obtain a $57 million settlement against Amtrak after a 2017 derailment in Dupont, Wash., said Tuesday it was hired by a passenger injured in Saturday’s derailment.

The fatal crash was the first since Amtrak implemented a forced-arbitration policy that bars passengers and their families from suing the railroad after deaths or injuries from crashes. It is unclear how that policy might impact litigation, but some advocates and attorneys said Tuesday they are fighting back, citing concerns that arbitration favors the defendant, in this case Amtrak.

“This is an entity that is partially owned by the U.S. government. Now it has put in a policy where they want to deny their passengers their constitutional right to a jury trial by this arbitration agreement,” said Sean Driscoll, of Clifford Law Offices. “Clifford Law Offices is going to do everything in our power to contest the validity of the arbitration agreement.”

Linda Lipsen, chief executive of the American Association for Justice, said victims of the crash should have the choice to take their cases to court.

“Amtrak should be held accountable in an open forum, not behind closed doors,” Lipsen said. “Families are grieving, but soon, those who lost breadwinners, partners or parents are going to consider seeking justice against those responsible for their unimaginable loss. But a forced arbitration clause will have already made that choice for them.”

By purchasing a train ticket, passengers agree to arbitrate any disputes, renouncing their right to take claims against the company to court. The forced-arbitration policy was added in January 2019 after the Philadelphia and Washington state crashes, which resulted in multimillion-dollar settlements for the victims.

Lawmakers want to end Amtrak’s forced arbitration policy, calling it ‘anti-consumer’ and ‘unfair’

Some members of Congress last year introduced legislation in both chambers to pressure Amtrak to restore the legal rights of Amtrak passengers and their families to bring disputes before a judge or jury. The nonprofit Public Citizen filed a lawsuit that was dismissed last year, but has been appealed in D.C. Circuit Court. It called the arbitration clause “unconstitutional” and asks that it be removed from the company’s ticketing terms.

Federal investigators begin probe into Amtrak train derailment that killed 3 in rural Montana

The lawsuit filed Tuesday speculates about a possible problem with tracks from heat-induced buckling, which can result after years of extreme temperatures swings.

“Track buckling is an occurrence that is known to Defendants Amtrak and BNSF, and Defendants had a duty to ensure that a neutral rail temperature was maintained and to monitor the condition of the rails to ensure that no track buckling occurred and to put in place policies and procedures to ensure that this was accomplished,” the lawsuit said.

Rail safety experts say rail lines can become deformed by heat, creating buckles in the tracks, and the location where the train derailed could be prone to that possibility. NTSB investigators haven’t commented on that possibility.

At the time of the derailment, Zach Schneider was in the viewing car and his wife, Rebecca, was in the sleeper car, which was the last car of the train, court documents said.

“When the viewing car derailed and was thrown from the tracks, Zach Schneider sustained excruciating and devastating injuries to his body and head, which ultimately caused his tragic and untimely death,” according to the filing.

Rebecca Schneider suffered “severe and life-altering injuries” when the sleeper car derailed and flipped onto its side, according to the lawsuit.

The filing said the last three passenger cars, including the sleeper car where Rebecca Schneider was located, “completely decoupled from the rest of the train and were forcefully thrown from the tracks, flipping and landing on their sides.” According to the suit, a fourth car — the viewing car where Zach Schneider was located — did not decouple but “was launched from the tracks and flipped onto its side.”

“Zach was just an incredible man,” Mongeluzzi said. “This has been a devastating loss to his wife, Rebecca, who was his soul mate, and she wants us to find out what happened and to make sure it never happens again.”