Valdosta Daily Times

National, International News

December 6, 2013

Prosecutors face tough choices in NYC derailment

NEW YORK — While the Metro-North Railroad is already getting hit with multimillion-dollar civil claims over a deadly commuter train derailment, prosecutors will face tough choices when deciding whether to bring criminal charges against the train’s engineer, who told investigators he nodded or fell into a daze at the controls.

Legal experts say drowsy driving isn’t necessarily a crime, and it can be tough to prosecute drivers who nod off unless there are extra factors at play, such as drug use or brazen disregard for passenger safety. The prosecutor’s office investigating the engineer recently failed to convict a bus driver of manslaughter in a 2011 crash that killed more than a dozen passengers, in part because his drowsiness wasn’t accompanied by any such factors.

“There’s a sentiment that when something terrible happens, you have to hold someone accountable criminally — that’s not always the case,” said attorney Andrew Abramson, who represented a Staten Island Ferry pilot sentenced to 18 months in prison following a deadly wreck in 2003. “Sometimes there is a tragedy, and it’s really a matter for the civil courts.”

Federal and city investigators are gathering information about Sunday’s train accident, which killed four people and injured more than 60, and likely will spend months analyzing the conduct of engineer William Rockefeller.

National Transportation Safety Board officials have said the train derailed in the Bronx after hitting a curve at 82 mph — far faster than the 30 mph speed limit.

The accident happened at 7:20 a.m. Rockefeller’s lawyer said the engineer had gotten up at 3:30 a.m. for his 5 a.m. shift after going to bed at 8:30 the previous night.

Rockefeller passed a blood-alcohol level breath test, officials said. His lawyer and union chief said he hadn’t been using drugs or doing anything else reckless, such as using a phone while at the controls.

The NTSB is trying to build a timeline of what Rockefeller was doing in the 72 hours   leading up to the accident, in part to determine whether he might have been sleep-deprived or suffering from an undisclosed health condition.

Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, who would handle any prosecution, has declined to comment publicly on the case and hasn’t given a timeline on a decision about criminal charges. In past cases, prosecutors have commonly waited until the conclusion of the federal investigation to convene a grand jury.

Late last year, a Bronx jury acquitted bus driver Ophadell Williams of manslaughter and negligent homicide after the bus he had taken on an all-night casino trip to Connecticut overturned on a highway while returning to the city, killing 15 people. In that case, prosecutors argued that Williams had knowingly endangered passengers by going night after night without enough sleep. Jurors didn’t buy it.

Williams’ lawyer, Patrick Bruno, said the legal standard for the lowest possible criminal charge against Rockefeller, negligent homicide, might be tough to meet if the engineer really did get a full night’s sleep and did everything else he was supposed to do to keep passengers safe.

“The standard is: Are you being so darn negligent and indifferent you should also be punished criminally?” Bruno said Thursday. “They might have a situation where they have four dead people, this guy did something stupid, but they don’t know if they can prove a case.”

In another case with similarities, federal prosecutors brought charges against several Staten Island Ferry workers after pilot Richard Smith passed out at the helm in 2003. Eleven people were killed when the ferry crashed into a terminal. Smith later pleaded guilty to seaman’s manslaughter and admitted he had taken pain medication that can cause drowsiness before reporting to work.

Smith’s lawyer, Abramson, noted, though, that the prosecution was made possible by a little-used maritime law that makes negligence in ferry operations a crime. No such law governs railway operations. One of Smith’s supervisors was convicted and sentenced to jail time under the unusual law.

As for civil litigation, lawyers said Metro-North and its parent, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, may have a hard time avoiding millions of dollars in damages over the injuries and deaths.

“If he fell asleep at the switch, I don’t see how they can defend themselves,” said David Cook, a partner at Kreindler and Kreindler, a law firm that specializes in transportation accidents.

He said, however, that under New York law the families of killed passengers could be limited in what they recover compared to what they might get in other states. Plaintiffs might also have a harder time recovering punitive damages if the engineer’s story about nodding off proves true.

“We’ve all, unfortunately, experienced that moment where you have that momentary nod,” Cook said.

The MTA declined to comment on the legal claims on Thursday. It has cited a policy against commenting on pending litigation.

Attorney Michael Lamonsoff, who is representing at least two passengers who were on the derailed train and has already filed a legal claim with Metro-North, said his clients were more interested in holding the railroad accountable for not installing safety equipment that could have prevented the accident than they were in seeing the engineer punished.

Congress ordered many railroads in 2008 to install a type of automated crash-avoidance technology called Positive Train Control but gave them until 2015 to comply.

“This technology existed and isn’t nearly as costly as the cost of human life and misery caused by this accident,” Lamonsoff said.

Metro-North, which runs between New York and Connecticut, has said installing the safety technology is a difficult and expensive process. Its parent agency and other railroads have pressed the government to extend the 2015 deadline a few years because of the cost and complexity of the Positive Train Control system, which uses GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor trains and stop them from colliding, derailing or going the wrong way.

 

1
Text Only
National, International News
  • Dollar Tree-Family Do_Rich copy.jpg Dollar Tree buys Family Dollar

    The fight for penny pinchers is intensifying.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • APTOPIX Mideast Israe_Rich copy.jpg Gaza war rages despite Hamas, Israel truce pledges

    Israel and Hamas launched new attacks Sunday in the raging Gaza war, despite going back and forth over proposals for a temporary halt to nearly three weeks of fighting ahead of a major Muslim holiday.
    The failure to reach even a brief humanitarian lull in the fighting illustrated the difficulties in securing a more permanent truce as the sides remain far apart on their terms.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • AP81072904918 copy.jpg Today in History for Tuesday, July 29, 2014

    Today is Tuesday, July 29, the 210th day of 2014. There are 155 days left in the year.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • AP4507280123 copy.jpg Today in History for Monday, July 28, 2014
    Today is Monday, July 28, the 209th day of 2014. There are 156 days left in the year. 
     

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • Tentative deal reached on VA reform

    The chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees have reached a tentative agreement on a plan to fix a veterans’ health program scandalized by long patient wait times and falsified records covering up delays.

    July 27, 2014

  • United States-Libya_Rich.jpg US evacuates embassy in Libya amid clashes

    The United States shuttered its embassy in Libya on Saturday and evacuated its diplomats to neighboring Tunisia under U.S. military escort as fighting intensified between rival militias. Secretary of State John Kerry said “free-wheeling militia violence” prompted the move.

    July 27, 2014 1 Photo

  • AP9607270692 copy.jpg Today in History for Sunday, July 27, 2014

    Today is Sunday, July 27, the 208th day of 2014. There are 157 days left in the year.

    July 27, 2014 1 Photo

  • No ticket for Shrek over loud musical, chief says

    A musical being performed in a New Hampshire park has drawn some noise complaints, but the deputy police chief says he’s “not giving Shrek a ticket.”

    July 26, 2014

  • Arizona Execution Dru_Rich copy.jpg Arizona’s McCain: Execution was torture

    U.S. Sen. John McCain says the execution of an Arizona inmate that lasted two hours was torture.

    July 26, 2014 1 Photo

  • Ukraine Plane_Rich copy.jpg US: Russia firing into Ukraine

    Russia is launching artillery attacks from its soil on Ukrainian troops and preparing to move heavier weaponry across the border, the U.S. and Ukraine charged Friday in what appeared to be an ominous escalation of the crisis.
    Russia accused Washington of lying and charged Ukraine with firing across the border on a Russian village. It also toughened its economic measures against Ukraine by banning dairy imports.

    July 26, 2014 1 Photo

Top News
Poll

Do you agree with the millage rate increases?

Yes. We need to maintain services
No. Services should have been cut.
     View Results