On Monday, October 4, 2021, Clifford Law Offices filed separate lawsuits on behalf of seven injured passengers in the September 25th derailment in Montana against Amtrak and the BNSF Railway Company that owns and maintains the tracks, an area that has become a key focus in the investigation of this tragedy.
The Empire Builder line headed from Chicago to Seattle derailed Saturday afternoon near Joplin, Montana, leaving three people dead and dozens injured. Clifford Law Offices filed the lawsuits in federal district court in Chicago and intends to challenge the arbitration requirement that is allegedly applicable to passengers. The law firm initially obtained a $16.75 million verdict against Amtrak for the 2017 derailment in Seattle, Washington, before the arbitration clause was added to back of tickets.
Allegations in the complaints allege negligence on the part of the defendants for a number of actions or inactions including improper, inadequate and insufficient rail maintenance, switches and train equipment. The cause of the derailment is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
The lawsuits were filed on behalf of a Massachusetts couple, a Pennsylvania couple, an Indiana couple and a man from Montana, all physically injured in the derailment and all suffering from severe emotional and psychological trauma.
Ryan and Hanna Shea, aged 34 and 31, of Leverett, Massachusetts, were traveling to see family in Seattle, thinking that rail travel was safe. They were able to make it out of the rail car that was tilted on its side. They never made it to their destination. Brandi and Shawnee Gimse, aged 42 and 29, of York, Pennsylvania, were in a rail car that flipped was on its side. Morgan and Christopher Grosso, aged 31 and 39 of Lafayette, Indiana, were in the first row of the observation car when it tilted on its side and skidded about 200 feet before coming to a stop. They were able to climb through the shattered glass out of broken windows. Theodore Hastreiter of Whitefish, Montana, suffered severe physical, psychological and emotional trauma as he witnessed fellow passengers die in the observation rail car in which he was seated.
The Amtrak train consisting of a locomotive and 10 passenger cars ejected some of the 158 people on board that included 17 crew members in a remote area of Montana about 200 miles north of Helena, the state’s capitol.
“This tragedy could and should have been avoided,” said Kristofer Riddle, a partner on the legal team that obtained the $57 million settlement against Amtrak earlier this year. “These people have gone through the unthinkable. They trusted Amtrak to get them to their destinations safely and Amtrak broke that trust.”
Clifford Law Offices has been contacted by others on the train and intends to file further lawsuits soon on behalf of those passengers.
The NTSB has assumed the lead role in determining how eight of the 10 cars left the tracks. A preliminary report from some 14 investigators on the scene reportedly is expected in the next month. The Federal Railroad Administration also has a team of experts assisting in the investigation. They reportedly are using video footage from the train and black-box data as well as analyzing damage to rail cars and injuries to survivors and those killed.
To speak to Kristofer Riddle or a member of the transportation liability legal team at Clifford Law Offices, contact Clifford Law Offices Communications Partner Pamela Sakowicz Menaker at 847-721-0909 (cell).
Below please see a statement by two of the passengers, Ryan and Hanna Shea, who describe their horrific experience and why they decided to file lawsuits.
STATEMENT OF RYAN AND HANNA SHEA
We were so excited to take a cross-country trip to visit Hanna’s family outside of Seattle. We’re very nervous flyers, so we decided to split the trip up, taking a short flight from Boston to Chicago, then taking the Amtrak Empire Builder the rest of the way. This was our first train trip, and we were planning on primarily travelling by train for future trips if everything went well. All of that changed on Saturday afternoon when what felt like a strong impact and a series of jolts threw us against the walls of our roomette. The train car shook and rocked side to side. We were in our separate bunks, terrified for ourselves and for each other, unable to see the other’s condition until the train stopped moving. Once the train stopped, we scrambled to embrace each other, to get out of the roomette, and to check on fellow passengers. Throughout our train car, passengers were frantically collecting their things, so we did the same. Initially, the Amtrak staff announced that we needed to stay in the car, but because it was tilted and we were in shock, we wanted nothing more than to get off the train and move to a place where we felt safer.
Once outside the train car, we saw how horrible the damage really was. Cars were tipped over on their sides, people were rushing around, trying to help each other, others screaming and crying. Everything was chaos, but we made it to safety on the side of the tracks, grouping up with other passengers, and waiting for paramedics to arrive. After some time, we were bussed to a school gym in Chester, Montana, where the people of the town really showed up to help out, offering food and water, and listening as we verbally processed the experience over and over. We decided to go directly home to Massachusetts.
Our hearts ache for the families and friends of the three people killed in the derailment, and for the passengers and crew who were severely injured. The faces of people who we saw during our time on the train, and in the wreckage, are very much still with us. We find ourselves constantly wondering: Where are they now? Are they safe? Do they feel safe?
We send those families our sincere condolences because we know their lives, like ours, will never be the same. We also know this cannot happen again. This isn’t the first time that an Amtrak train has derailed or crashed, causing physical and psychological harm to its passengers. We’ve learned since the incident that the central action Amtrak has taken after the last fatal derailment has been to add a mandatory arbitration clause to its purchase agreement. When you put your safety in the hands of major corporations like this, you don’t want to know that they are preemptively trying to block your paths to recourse should the worst happen.
But that’s the truth. And that’s why we have hired Clifford Law Offices in Chicago to fight for Amtrak and any other responsible parties to be held accountable, and more than that, to know that we are pursuing every possible avenue to protect from this totally avoidable horror other passengers who may be visiting their families or taking what is sold as a sleepy ride through the beautiful landscapes of the U.S. We hope that it is through our lawsuits that rail will again be a trusted way to travel, and that Amtrak will admit the mistakes it made here and do the right thing. The status quo is obviously not safe enough. Amtrak needs to focus on how to make rail travel safer, not how to save money when a disaster occurs.