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Dueling lawsuits by Amtrak, truck driver’s widow seek damages

Workers chat behind the remnants of the vehicle where an Amtrak train derailed Monday in Mendon, Mo. The train, traveling from Los Angeles to Chicago, struck a dump truck at a crossing, killing four people and injuring dozens. (Chase Castor/Getty Images)

As federal safety investigators work to determine the factors that contributed to this week’s deadly train collision with a dump truck in Missouri, dueling lawsuits filed by Amtrak and BNSF Railway and by the truck driver’s widow are seeking accountability and damages in federal and state courts.

Amtrak, which was operating the train Monday when three passengers were killed and more than 100 injured, and BNSF, which owns the tracks, sued MS Contracting on Thursday, blaming the company and its deceased driver, Billy Dean Barton II, for “negligently, carelessly, and recklessly” operating the 2007 Kenworth dump truck that was hauling rock for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Despite the “clearly visible approaching Amtrak Train 4, Barton failed to yield the right of way … and instead attempted to cross the grade crossing which resulted in a collision,” according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Missouri.

But a lawsuit filed by Erin Barton, the truck driver’s widow, alleges that BNSF and Chariton County, where the collision occurred, were negligent.

“BNSF was actually warned by concerned citizens of the ultra-hazardous nature of the crossing; yet it sat on its hands and failed to make sure the grade crossing was in proper condition or had active warnings to prevent this horrific crash,” said the lawsuit, filed this week in Chariton County Circuit Court.

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The suit also alleges that the county was negligent in designing and maintaining the road leading to the crossing, and that the road did not follow engineering standards for such crossings.

“Physical defects in the road made it dangerous and unsafe,” according to the suit. It cited “sloped approaches, brush, trees and vegetation blocking a full view of oncoming trains in some quadrants, and seasonal crops in surrounding fields that would further block a driver’s visibility.”

BNSF, county officials and Amtrak declined to comment. MS Contracting did not answer calls seeking comment.

Steven Groves, who represents the Barton family, said Billy Dean Barton was in the right.

“This grade crossing was a trap,” Groves said. “It’s literally not possible to use it safely for someone who’s driving a truck like he was, when a 90-mile-per-hour train comes down the track like it did.”

The speed limit along that stretch of track near Mendon was 90 mph. The National Transportation Safety Board said the Amtrak train, which was headed from Los Angeles to Chicago, had been traveling at 87 miles per hour.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there were about 2,148 grade-crossing incidents around the country last year, killing 236 people and injuring 662.