Derailment engineer $10M suit blames Metro-North

The Metro-North engineer who fell asleep at the controls of a speeding train three years ago today is blaming the commuter railroad for a Bronx derailment that killed four passengers, The Journal News/lohud has learned.

The $10 million lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in New York revealed that engineer William Rockefeller says Metro-North should have equipped the Manhattan-bound train with a system that would have automatically applied the brakes when the train exceeded posted speed limits.

The filing of the lawsuit was timed to meet the deadline for railroad employees with injury claims, lawyers said. Metro-North declined to comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit also says Metro-North should have installed an alerter system of audible signals in Rockefeller’s cab that would have let him know the train was speeding. Such a system was in place in the rear cab of the Hudson Line train for southbound runs into Manhattan but not in the front cab where Rockefeller was stationed.

“They had the mechanisms in place to do this 20 years ago,” said Rockefeller’s attorney, Ira Maurer of Fishkill.

Rockefeller’s cab did have a so-called “dead man’s pedal” that requires continuous pressure from the engineer to keep the train moving forward.

Federal authorities say Train 8808 was traveling 82 mph along a curve near Spuyten-Duyvil when it derailed during the early morning hours of Dec. 1, 2013. Rockefeller managed to hit the brakes six seconds before the train came to rest along the banks of the Hudson River. Four passengers were killed and 60 were injured, among them a Metro-North air conditioning mechanic who was paralyzed after being thrown through the train.

A federal probe later determined Rockefeller was suffering from an undiagnosed case of sleep apnea exacerbated by a recent shift change.

The lawsuit, filed on the third anniversary of the crash, echoes the findings of federal safety investigators who suggested Metro-North’s attention to making sure trains arrived on time may have led to safety oversights.

Metro-North was negligent in failing to provide Rockefeller with a safe place to work “due to its ‘deficient safety culture’ that prizes on-time performance at the expense of protecting riders and workers,” the lawsuit alleges.

Rockefeller’s status

Rockefeller tore a ligament in his left shoulder and suffers from post-traumatic stress as a result of the crash.

He remains suspended without pay and has not returned to work since the accident. He was never charged with a crime and has not faced a disciplinary hearing. In September, Metro-North’s parent company, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, informed Rockefeller that his bid for a lifetime disability pension would be denied. Rockefeller said he should be compensated for his post-traumatic stress.

Rockefeller was, however, awarded a federal railroad retirement pension for an unspecified disability that has prevented him from returning to work.

Maurer said Rockefeller has empathy for the families of those who died as well as the injured but believes he had legitimate legal claims he felt compelled to pursue.

“His life has been devastated by what happened,” Maurer said.

A lawyer who represents injured passengers criticized Rockefeller for claiming he is as much a victim as their clients.

“It’s a pathetic attempt to cash in on a tragic event that he caused,” said attorney Michael Lamonsoff, who represents eight injured passengers. “Sleep apnea just doesn’t occur. You have symptoms for years of being tired and groggy and he knew this.”

Second deadliest crash

The derailment is the second deadliest accident in the history of Metro-North. In February, 2015, six were killed when a Harlem line train crashed into an SUV that ventured onto the track at the Commerce Street crossing in Valhalla.

To date, Metro-North’s legal tab for the Spuyten-Duyvil crash is nearly $32 million. Much of that total — $23.8 million — has gone to settle lawsuits filed by passengers injured in the crash.

Metro-North air conditioning mechanic Samuel Rivera was left a quadriplegic as a result of his injuries suffered during the crash. Rivera was on the way into the city with his teenage son on an off day. His legal claims against Metro-North are still pending.

Metro-North has since remedied several of the safety issues cited in Rockefeller’s lawsuit. Cab alerters have been installed in all trains.

And curved track like the section near Spuyten-Duyvil has been outfitted with an automatic train control system that applies the brakes when a train is speeding. The system is in place on all sections of track where engineers are required to knock down their speed by 20 mph or more.

Anthony Bottalico, the former head of Metro-North’s biggest union, told The Journal News/lohud in 2015 that union members had complained to higher-ups about the lack of an adequate backup safety system at the Spuyten-Duyvil curve.

Bottalico said his union, the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, believed the curve needed a system that applies the brakes to a speeding train when the engineer is unresponsive.

Former MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said then that the railroad altered its thinking about backup safety systems after the crash.

“Until the Spuyten Duyvil derailment two years ago, every railroad operator on the Hudson Line believed the most important speed protection at that curve was the experience and skill of the engineers operating trains through there,” Lisberg said. “Our thinking changed quickly after the derailment, and we installed new signal protections to prevent overspeed operations through the curve.”

The effects that sleep apnea can have on engineers arose as an issue again last month during the investigation into the September crash of a NJ Transit train in Hoboken, which killed one and injured more than 100. The lawyer for engineer, Thomas Gallagher, told reporters his client was recently diagnosed with sleep apnea. Gallagher told federal investigators he has no memory of the accident.

The train accelerated to a speed of 21 mph moments before it crashed into the Hoboken station. A woman standing on the platform was killed.

The current head of ACRE, James Fahey, declined to comment on Rockefeller’s legal claims.


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