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SALA v. AMTRAK

September 27, 1989

MARTA A. SALA, on behalf of herself and all others similarly situated
v.
NATIONAL RAILROAD PASSENGER CORPORATION, d/b/a "AMTRAK"



The opinion of the court was delivered by: BRODERICK

 RAYMOND J. BRODERICK, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

 I.

 Plaintiff Marta Sala has moved for final approval of a proposed settlement of this class action in mass tort, which was filed on behalf of all passengers injured in a train derailment near Chester, Pennsylvania. The proffered settlement provides that defendant National Railroad Passenger Corporation, which is more commonly known as Amtrak, shall pay the class $ 1,750,000, plus any interest that accrues between the signing of the settlement agreement and final distribution to the class. Pursuant to the proposed settlement, Amtrak has delivered a check for $ 1,750,000 to the law firm of Williams & Connolly, acting as escrow agent, which has invested the funds in government securities.

 This litigation arose out of a collision between Amtrak Train No. 66 ("The Night Owl") and a 17-ton piece of track equipment near Chester, Pennsylvania in the early morning hours of January 29, 1988. The Boston-bound train was carrying some 140 passengers and 10 crew members at the time.

 The accident occurred north of Hook Interlocking, an area in which trains may cross from one track to another by means of switches. Two and one-half hours before The Night Owl was to pass through Hook Interlocking, track 2 north of Hook was closed so that a maintenance crew could service it. When The Night Owl approached Hook Interlocking on track 2, Tom Connor, the tower operator on duty who had control of the switches and signal levers, failed to divert the train from track 2 to track 1 and to set the safety signals properly. As a result, the train proceeded up track 2 at its maximum authorized speed of ninety miles per hour and collided with the maintenance equipment. Upon impact, The Night Owl's two engines and eight cars derailed, injuring an estimated forty to fifty passengers. Fortunately, no one was killed.

 Tom Connor immediately fled the scene of the wreck. He was not located until three days later, at which time he was interrogated and tested for drug use. Toxicological tests disclosed the presence of marijuana, amphetamines, methamphetamines, and cocaine in Mr. Connor's system.

 Marta Sala, a passenger on The Night Owl, commenced this action against Amtrak on February 25, 1988. Her complaint, filed on behalf of herself and all other passengers injured in the accident, sought compensatory and punitive damages for alleged negligence and willful misconduct on the part of Amtrak. This Court granted class certification pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 23(a) and (b)(3) on April 29, 1988. Sala v. National Railroad Passenger Corp., 120 F.R.D. 494 (E.D. Pa. 1988) (Broderick, J.).

 Although there has been hesitation in the past to permit suits involving mass torts to proceed as class actions, see id. at 495-97, in the Court's opinion it has been an effective and efficient litigation vehicle for both the Court and the parties. Absent certification, some fifty individuals would have filed fifty separate lawsuits in various courts in which service could be obtained upon the defendant. Doubtless, the overall combined costs to the parties and to society in resolving these myriad suits would have been much greater than the expense required to maintain this class action. Almost all the potential litigation stemming from The Night Owl wreck has been brought to a just conclusion less than two years after the accident. The class action thus has proved a worthy mechanism to adjudicate disputes arising out of mass torts.

 After class certification, plaintiff embarked on extensive discovery, which lasted for over a year. Because Amtrak already had admitted negligence, but denied that it had engaged in reckless and outrageous conduct warranting punitive damages, plaintiff reviewed thousands of documents and deposed twenty-seven witnesses in the effort to unearth evidence of Amtrak's alleged willful wrongdoing. Plaintiff interviewed all significant Amtrak personnel involved in the accident, including Amtrak managers in charge of safety and Mr. Connor's supervisors.

 Plaintiff also retained four expert witnesses. Three of these experts, each conversant in psychiatry, toxicology, or substance abuse, were prepared to testify that Mr. Connor likely was under the influence of drugs at the time of the collision *fn1" and that Mr. Connor likely had a chronic substance abuse problem which his supervisors should have identified by reason of his erratic work attendance. Mr. Connor's supervisors acknowledged in deposition testimony that his work record was indicative of possible drug abuse, yet they had failed to follow through on warnings that he would be fired if his absences continued, to recommend that he seek counselling, or to transfer him to a less safety-dependent position.

 A fourth expert was prepared to testify that Amtrak was reckless in its failure to protect adequately against collisions on out-of-service tracks. Plaintiff further believed that she had developed documentary and testimonial evidence indicating that Amtrak had discontinued an effective anti-collision procedure known as "fuse pulling" without engaging in a sufficiently prudent safety analysis. She also secured evidence of numerous safety rule violations by Amtrak employees, of ten prior incidents in which these violations had allowed trains to travel on out-of-service tracks, and of governmental criticism regarding Amtrak's failure to ensure compliance with safety regulations. These facts, plaintiff contended, placed Amtrak on notice that its anti-collision system was inadequate.

 Plaintiff also contacted potential class members and obtained information concerning their injuries and losses. She mailed both a court-approved class notice and an injury questionnaire to all 146 persons named on Amtrak's passenger list. Of these mailings, 130 were delivered, with twenty-five passengers eventually opting out of the class. Plaintiff contacted another six class members through subsequent efforts, which included the use of a private investigator. Forty-one class members reported specific injuries. Plaintiff's counsel then interviewed class members, either in person or by telephone, *fn2" to document more detailed information about their claims.

 Although some passengers on The Night Owl suffered concussions and one lost several teeth, most of those who became class members sustained "soft tissue" injuries, such as bruises, strains, and stiffness. As a whole, twenty-one class members received medical attention, with only seven apparently generating over $ 1,000 in expenses. The total cost of class members' medical treatment is probably less than $ 50,000. Eleven class members missed some work, three of whom were absent for more than two weeks. Fourteen report continuing physical trauma, all of which involve ...


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