Memories of Tragedies on the Rails
On May 13, 2015, once again tragedy struck as an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia, killing six people and injuring more than 130. One of those killed was a Naval Academy midshipman on leave.
This shocking and catastrophic derailment brings back memories for Attorneys Christian D. Searcy and F. Gregory Barnhart beginning with a heartbroken widow and two small children and ending in a tumultuous legal battle with one of the largest, most powerful defendants in the United States.
That time it was July 31, 1991, an Amtrak train operating in Lugoff, South Carolina. An Amtrak train suddenly derailed at 79 miles per hour while Miami Police Officer Paul Palank had just dozed off to sleep. Paul’s wife, Angel, and their two children would not discover the tragic loss of their husband and father for many hours after the train wreck and only after she repeatedly dialed an 800 telephone number given to her by Amtrak personnel. Her frequent efforts to discover whether her husband was alive were shattered in minutes as Angel Palank was told of his death; left sobbing on the floor and trying to calm her children pleading for “daddy to come home”.
In Philadelphia, 2015, investigators of crash of Amtrak train number 188 are “focusing on track conditions, equipment and human performance, among other factors” in their investigation of what is now the latest disaster in a series of rail accidents on heavily travelled routes. These were also areas in which Lawyers Chris Searcy and Greg Barnhart found problems after the 1991 train derailment that killed Paul Palank.
In 1991, Angel Palank and her lawyers, Chris Searcy and Greg Barnhart met and she made them promise they would not relent until she knew why her young husband was taken from her, leaving her two small children fatherless. The attorneys promised they would not give up her fight until all the facts came out and, if appropriate, those responsible were brought to justice.
“When Angel first came to meet me, she was overwhelmed with grief,” said Searcy. “She told me that this case must make her husband’s death meaningful. She was clear that she needed someone who would not get cold feet and settle. She wanted to go all the way to the Supreme Court – if necessary.”
Angel Palank, Chris Searcy and Greg Barnhart embarked on an intensive investigation before filing their lawsuit in 1993. The path to justice would be long, but in 1995 a compensatory trial resulted in a jury verdict of $6.1 and a subsequent punitive damage trial, lasting (6) months provided the jury with substantial basis for their punitive damage verdict in the amount of $50 million.
Both jury verdicts were subsequently affirmed on appeal to the Fourth District Court of Appeal of Florida. CSX Transp., Inc. v. Palank, 743 So.2d 556 (1999). The defendants petitioned for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court for the $50 million punitive damage award. The US Supreme Court denied certiorari.
Angel Palank and her two young children ultimately found some amount of justice after ten years of hard fighting and intensive investigation; but nothing would ever bring back the love of her life, killed in the unnecessary train derailment.
In this same train derailment, over 71 injured and 7 deceased plaintiffs with other attorneys settled their claims with CSX and Amtrak for the 1991 railroad accident for a collective total payment of $13 million, Angel Palank and her two young children were paid over $76 million (including interest payments).
Why such a difference?
Attorneys Chris Searcy and Greg Barnhart took Angel Palank’s charge to them very seriously. They turned over every stone they could find; dug deeply into the records of CSX; and combed the country for witnesses relevant to CSX’s history in failing to maintain their railroad tracks properly.
What did the lawyers and investigators of Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley find? Among many other deficiencies and problems:
- A defective Orlon switch improperly installed for many years.
- A broken cross-pin broken for at least months before the train derailment.
- Evidence of actual knowledge by CSX that the cross-pin was defective.
- Documented deficiencies in staffing and inspection practices by CSX.
- A systematic and profit driven policy of staff reduction without regard for passenger safety.
- False Safety inspection reports documenting inspections of railway that never occurred.
- Over ten years of systematic cut backs in maintenance of way employees (the same employees who would maintain the railways).
- Over ten years of systematic cut backs in railway and track maintenance without regard for safety.
- An undisclosed audit setting forth numerous defective conditions on turnouts and complaints about the serious reduction in the training and number of maintenance of way employees fired.
- Testimony of former employees that inspections were ignored and the results fabricated.
- An ultimate savings to CSX of approximately $2.4 billion through layoffs of 50% of its workforce necessary to maintain its tracks.
The courts were impressed by the evidence presented at trial of the case. The trial judge, Arthur J. Franza wrote in his 19 page order denying the defendant’s request for a reduction (Remittitur) of the punitive damages verdict:
“Here, the clear and convincing evidence shows that upon the presentation of all the testimony and evidence and the conclusion of the trial, CSXT could neither negate nor mitigate the cost of its flagrant violation of the public trust. Keeping with the policy that punitive damages should punish and deter, a jury of six reasonable persons concluded that $50 million would adequately communicate to this Defendant, that this type of reprehensible conduct should not and would not be tolerated.”
In addition, the Fourth District Court of Appeals in Florida held: “…we reject CSX’s argument that the verdict was “so inordinately large as obviously to exceed the maximum limit of a reasonable range within which the jury may properly operate.”
Angel Palank tried to turn her attentions toward helping others. She co-founded the Paul Palank Memorial Foundation to help the children in Dade and Broward counties. This organization aims to balance or fund the programs that meet the immediate needs for children to be safe and protected while trying to assist in funding programs that seek effective long term creative solutions to the underlying problems.
Attorneys Christian Searcy and Gregory Barnhart have gone on to many more hard fought and satisfying victories; but the story of the young mother and wife who lost her husband unnecessarily in a train derailment caused by a corporate decision to choose profits over people’s safety will forever remain in their memories.
In this most recent train derailment, recent reports might lead to the discovery of a combination of problems. Reports place the train traveling at possibly as fast as 100 miles per hour; nearly twice the speed it should have been travelling. It was a tight curve when it went off the tracks; suggesting a derailment. Extensive investigation and analysis of the wreckage is still necessary and it is our hope that independence is maintained in the evaluation of the cause.
Our sympathies and compassion go out to all the victims and their families who have suffered injury or death as a result of this most recent train derailment in Philadelphia. Hopefully this is not yet another avoidable tragedy.