Metrolink, Connex commit to $200 million maximum liability in Los Angeles rail disaster

Southern California's Metrolink system and Connex Railroad filed court papers Wednesday accepting the maximum $200 million in liability for a 2008 head-on collision between a commuter train and a freight that killed 25 people and injured more than 100.

The sum is the maximum for a train accident under federal law, said Keith Millhouse, board chairman of the Southern California Regional Rail Authority.

"The rationale is this is the maximum that could be recovered in any event and will expeditiously get the maximum compensation to the victims and their families," Millhouse said.

Investigators believe the commuter train's engineer was texting when he ran a red light and collided head on with a Union Pacific freight train in the Chatsworth area of the San Fernando Valley on Sept. 12, 2008.

Engineer Robert Sanchez, who was among those killed, was provided by Connex.

The court, which has to approve the settlement, would distribute the fund to victims.

The filing noted that 109 lawsuits, almost all involving passengers, are pending in Los Angeles County Superior Court and asked that all passenger claims be consolidated into the federal proceeding.

"This ... will avoid months and perhaps years of litigation over liability and causation issues while making compensation available to passengers on an expedited basis," the filing said.

Paul R. Kiesel, coordinating counsel for all the lawsuits, said the upside is that victims and families won't have to wait years for resolution of claims, but there is a downside as well.

"It is unfortunate that because of the scope of the harm here, the actual recoveries will be far less than the losses they've truly suffered," Kiesel said.

Kiesel said it may be the largest single train accident settlement.

"I'm not aware of any settlement exceeding this amount," he said.

Neither Metrolink nor Connex revealed how much each was paying into the fund.

The proposed fund involved the cooperation of several insurance carriers, according to Connex, a subsidiary of Veolia Transportation, which operates bus, rail and other services throughout North America.

A Connex statement said the proposed fund would "provide financial recovery to victims of the accident in the full amount available to passengers of a commuter rail accident in the U.S., and to do so years ahead of when financial recovery for victims would otherwise likely be realized."

Kiesel said that once Metrolink and Connex deposit the $200 million with the court, the process will move on to allocation of funds to claimants.

"It's anticipated that every single claimant here will have an opportunity to fully present their claims to a judicial officer," he said.

Metrolink, created in 1992, is a regional heavy-rail commuter system serving Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.

The 2008 eight crash was the system's second disaster.

In 2005, 11 people were killed and about 180 were injured when a man who later claimed he was suicidal parked his sport utility vehicle on train tracks in suburban Glendale, causing a Metrolink train to derail and hit another Metrolink train. The driver of the SUV was convicted of murder.