A field representative for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office met on Friday in Simi Valley with the victims and victims’ relatives of the 2008 Metrolink commuter train crash near Chatsworth.
About 20 people in attendance told field representative Molly O’Brien that they believe the victims and their families deserved better from the government and Veolia, the French company that ran Metrolink’s trains when the crash occurred.
Twenty-five people were killed and more than 130 were injured in the crash. Of those killed, 21 were Ventura County residents.
Connex Railroad LLC, a subsidiary of French conglomerate Veolia, is the company that hired engineer Robert Sanchez, who was found to be texting on his cellphone when he ran a red light and the Metrolink train collided with a Union Pacific freight train outside Chatsworth on Sept. 12, 2008. Sanchez died in the crash.
Federal law caps the maximum liability for passenger rail accidents at $200 million. Veolia has paid about $54 million of the $200 million cash settlement, while the rest was paid by insurance companies and Metrolink.
In total, nearly 130 awards were given, ranging from $12,000 to $9 million to the victims and their families.
U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Simi Valley, and Feinstein, D-San Francisco, introduced legislation to raise the limit on liability for passenger rail accidents for rail operators from $200 million to $500 million. The bill, which would have applied retroactively to cover the Metrolink accident, didn’t move in the Senate.
Last year, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman said the $200 million compensation was insufficient, but he was required to stick by the $200 million cap under law. He said total claims exceeded the cap by $120 to $150 million, and if a jury tried each case the award could have exceeded $350 million.
In January, the victims and victims’ relatives were scheduled to meet at the Ventura courthouse with a representative of Veolia. However, no one from Veolia showed up, though many members of the media did.
Veolia General Counsel Alan Moldawer emailed some of the victims and told them he was not attending because he had been expecting a “private meeting” with only a few people.
The meeting on Friday was closed to the media. However, several of the victims and victims’ relatives said afterward that they asked during the meeting why statutory damage caps have no gross negligence clause, and why the congressional bills to raise the statutory damage cap in this case never made it out of committee. They also wanted it known that they will be demanding that city, county, state and federal governments not have contracts with Veolia until the company pays the additional $150 million cited in Lichtman’s final judgment.
Carolyn Rambo, a passenger on the train, said the statutory damage cap stopped the discovery process and took the victim’s right to trial away. She said that as a result, the investigation to determine gross negligence against Veolia was stopped.
Veolia “just got to write a check and walk away,” said Rambo, who believes more Congress members should take the issue more seriously.
Simi Valley resident Frank Kohler, 66, also was injured and has been unable to work as a nurse, a job he held at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank for 30 years.
“We’re here today to seek some sort of comfort among ourselves, and to see what can be done in the future to help prevent this from happening to other people,” Kohler said.
Kohler said he was pleased about legislation that Feinstein and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Rancho Mirage, introduced and later signed into law mandating the installation of GPS systems on all of the nation’s commuter railroads and freight lines. Those devices will be installed by next year, two years ahead of the deadline.
Camarillo resident Jeannette Noble, 56, said she was at the meeting on behalf of her father, Dennis Arnold, 75, who was killed in the crash.
“There’s a lot of frustrated people. Many others did not show up today because they’ve given up, they’re numb, they’re frustrated with the system, and have lost faith in the people that are supposed to protect us from corporate greed and criminal negligence,” she said. “I hope (this meeting) is not another dog and pony show just to appease the people who are upset.”
Moorpark resident Eric Welling, 46, who was severely injured in the crash, said he was disappointed Feinstein wasn’t in attendance Friday.
“She hasn’t returned phone calls, emails, nothing. I’m disappointed,” Welling said.
Brian Weiss, communication director for Feinstein, said via email after the meeting, “Senator Feinstein will continue to work with these families and be helpful in any way she can.”