LOS ANGELES – A judge on Thursday divided $200 million among victims of the disastrous 2008 collision of two trains but said he was forced to short-change them and make "impossible decisions" because of a federal cap on damages.
Twenty-five people died and more than 100 were injured when a Metrolink commuter train collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train in the Chatsworth section of Los Angeles.
Federal safety officials said the passenger train's engineer didn't stop at a red signal. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the engineer had been texting seconds before he drove through the signal.
Attorneys said injured passengers and families of those killed will receive anywhere from about $12,000 to $9 million — far less, in some cases, than the projected costs of their future medical care. The money was awarded based on degree of injury.
"There were people who walked off that train and there were people who were brutally maimed for life. It depended on where you were seated," said Jerome Ringler, an attorney who represented some of the injured and families of those killed.
The judge ruled that $4.2 million would go to the surviving family of each adult killed and $1.2 million will be paid for each child who died.
Attorneys for the victims had requested between $320 million and $350 million, and if each case were tried separately, the potential verdict would be close to or even greater than that amount, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman wrote.
"Impossible decisions had to be made," Lichtman wrote. "What was given to one victim had to be taken from another."
Veolia Environment, a company based in France, and Metrolink, which provides commuter rail service in Southern California, agreed to pay the $200 million award. Veolia's subsidiary employed the engineer cited by federal officials as responsible for the crash.
The total amount "is the largest financial recovery in the history of passenger rail and exceeds the amounts paid to victims of 9/11 and to victims of prior accidents at Metrolink before Veolia assumed train operations," Veolia said a statement Thursday.
The company said that it had set up a victims compensation fund within two years of the accident and that the money was being distributed more quickly than if the complicated lawsuits had been fully fought out in court.
"The money ... is not adequate" and Veolia and Metrolink should provide enough funding to fully compensate victims, said Jeff Buckley, 39, who lost his father in the accident.
Buckley, who arrived at the site about five minutes after the crash, said he and his family still are dealing with the loss.
"I saw the bodies, I saw my father," he said. "And to live with that ... one day he's there and the next he's gone."
"How do you put a price on it?," he said. "It's not about money. It's about doing the right thing. It's about what needs to be done for the people who are still suffering, permanently disabled."
Paul Kiesel, an attorney who represented victims and also oversaw the consolidated negligence lawsuits, said the awards ranged from a low of $12,000 for a passenger who suffered no physical injuries to $9 million for Racheal Mofya, a Zambian exchange student who was studying fashion.
She was left brain damaged and will need $18 million to cover future medical expenses, Kiesel said.
The judge said that many victims in the train's first passenger car presented emergency room and medical bills that exceeded $1 million. He said the damages were so extensive that the court was faced with having little money left over for the victims traveling in the second and third cars.
Under federal law, a $200 million liability cap is in place for damages involving passenger train accidents. Congress set the cap to keep train systems operating when faced with major lawsuits.
On Monday, 17 members of California's congressional delegation sent a letter to Veolia's chairman urging the company to voluntarily provide additional compensation. The letter cited British Petroleum's actions in providing additional funding to victims of the Gulf of Mexico oil rig blowout despite a federal cap on damages.
The company was reviewing the request and was unable to immediately comment, spokeswoman Erica Swerdlow said.
Freking reported from Washington, D.C.
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