NEW YORK - For lawyers preparing to sue over Sunday's deadly New York commuter rail accident, their success in court may depend largely on two factors: whether human error caused the derailment and if state or federal law governs railroad safety in the case.
Tens or hundreds of millions of dollars could be at stake, based on previous cases. A Cook County, Illinois, jury in 2009, awarded more than $29.5 million to a Chicago woman injured in a 2005 commuter train derailment.
The investigation into the Metro-North derailment in the Bronx, which killed four and critically injured 11, has centred on the actions of the train's engineer, William Rockefeller. He told investigators he lost focus right before the crash, his labour union leader told Reuters.
Investigators have said the seven-car train was traveling at 82 mph, nearly three times the speed limit for the curved section of track where it crashed.
A lawyer for Rockefeller was not immediately available for comment, and the National Transportation Safety Board has said it has not reached a conclusion into the accident's cause and would continue its work for weeks, if not months.
Authorities have not found any mechanical problems with the train so far, but a safety system designed to keep an engineer alert was not installed in the car from which Rockefeller was controlling the train, a source familiar with the railroad's operation told Reuters.
If government investigators determine human error caused the derailment, the agency operating the train could be held liable for the negligence of its employees under a common-law doctrine known as "vicarious liability."
That doctrine could apply, experts say, even if the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the parent of Metro-North, can say it had no reason to question the engineer's competence.
"The case will turn on his conduct, not on the conduct of the MTA," UCLA law professor Richard Abel said.
If the accident is deemed to have been caused by a mechanical failure, liability could be spread among several possible defendants, including manufacturers of any parts found to have failed and various contractors.
No lawsuits have yet been filed in the wake of the crash, but New York plaintiffs' attorney Michael Lamonsoff told Reuters on Wednesday he had notified Metro-North that he planned to file a negligence suit on behalf of two injured passengers.
Another lawyer, Joel Faxon of New Haven, Connecticut, said he had consulted with two families about potential claims. The MTA "own the crash" if there was personnel error, he said.
A spokesman for the MTA declined to comment about the agency's potential liability.
Metro-North carries $10 million in liability insurance coverage and the MTA has an additional $50 million through a subsidiary, an MTA official said. The agency also has $350 million in coverage through commercial markets, the official said.