Metrolink sues engineer’s employer

Faced with potentially staggering wrongful death and injury claims in the wake of last month’s Chatsworth train crash, the Metrolink board today is scheduled to discuss a lawsuit the commuter rail line has filed against the company that provides its engineers.

The engineer of the Metrolink train that collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train, killing 25 people, is suspected of sending and receiving cellphone text messages seconds before the accident.

Details on the legal action were not immediately available. But Metrolink officials have voiced strong concerns about evidence indicating that the engineer violated a ban on cellphone use while at the controls.

“There’s no gray area on it,” said Metrolink board member Keith Millhouse, a Ventura County representative. “It’s black and white. Even having a cellphone up there [in the locomotive] is a violation. Period.

“Doing that was clearly an intentional and willful violation of Metrolink policy.”

Millhouse said he could not comment on the legal matter, which is scheduled to be discussed behind closed doors at today’s board meeting.

But the lawsuit, naming Connex Railroad LLC, a subsidiary of Veolia Transportation, was filed this week in federal court, according to a source close to Metrolink, who spoke on condition of anonymity because it is a sensitive legal matter. The action begins a process of seeking judicial guidance on who will bear responsibility for the accident.

Some legal observers said the collision -- the worst rail accident in California in 50 years -- could be the first test of a $200-million federally imposed cap on damages associated with train accidents. In addition to those killed, dozens were hospitalized and a total of 135 passengers and crew members were injured.

Officials “feel strongly they have to protect Metrolink’s interest [and] ability to have resources” to continue to fully operate, the source said.

A spokeswoman for Veolia Transportation said the company had just learned that the suit was filed and could not comment. “Connex has been operating within full compliance of their contract with Metrolink and they continue to operate the service at the request and confidence of Metrolink,” said Erica Swerdlow.

One key issue is likely to be a little-publicized but pivotal contract change made by Metrolink four years ago, when Connex took over providing engineers and crew members from Amtrak, the previous contractor.

Concerned about losses incurred because of negligence by contract train crews, Metrolink required bidders to assume all financial risk resulting from the “willful misconduct” of its employees.

Amtrak’s bid proposal was disqualified after the company balked at that and other provisions, saying they posed too great a financial risk, records and interviews show.

“They didn’t want to take the liability. That’s why they didn’t get the contract,” said Art Brown, a longtime Orange County representative on the Metrolink board.

Connex won the contract after agreeing to language that would indemnify Metrolink for liability resulting from acts of “willful misconduct” by Connex employees.

Connell is a Times staff writer.

Times staff writer Steve Hymon contributed to this report.