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Compensation determined for Metrolink crash victims

How do you explain to parents that their dead child's life was worth less than that of another family's breadwinner?

Who is more deserving of a $1-million compensation award, a woman whose organs were crushed when a train table "guillotined" her abdomen during the Metrolink crash three years ago or the man who has physically healed but whose depression and anger have cost him his job, marriage and sound mind?

In parceling out the $200 million provided by the company responsible for the horrific Sept. 12, 2008, commuter train crash near Chatsworth, "a 'Sophie's Choice' had to be made on a daily basis," said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman of the 122 heart-wrenching stories of loss on which he had to put dollar values.

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Lichtman's 45-page judgment issued Thursday on distribution of the compensation capped by federal law is replete with soul-searching as he explains his rationale for awarding $4.2 million on average for each family provider killed in the crash and $12,000 to one of the two "walk-aways" emotionally, but not physically, scarred by the disaster.

"The list of woes, financial needs and emotional devastation is simply inexplicable," wrote the judge, who held daily hearings for three months to collect individual accounts of the day that altered life not just for the crash victims but for the San Fernando Valley communities in ways that "will be felt for generations."

The highest award, $9 million, will go to Racheal Mofya, a foreign exchange student with extensive medical bills who had third-degree burns and a fractured skull and had to have part of her brain removed.

Families who lost children, like the parents of 19-year-old Cal State Northridge student Aida Magdaleno, will receive on average $1.2 million when the payouts are available in about two months.

Juan Magdaleno, the victim's brother, said the families were aware of the constraints on Lichtman in dividing up the compensation fund but are angered by the federal cap that he says disrespects accident victims.

"Aida's life and the lives of others weren't for sale. Their lives didn't have a price until the accident. And with the cap, the more people die, the less their lives were worth," said an incredulous Magdaleno, who also criticized Metrolink and its operators for dragging their feet on recommended safety improvements to avert other collisions. "There's nothing that will bring my sister back, but one of the things we want in her memory is for change to occur."

Lichtman, experienced in wide-scale damages as architect of the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese's $660-million settlement four years ago with victims of pedophile priests, described the losses of young people in the Chatsworth crash as "unspeakable and incalculable," adding that "money will in no way alleviate the suffering" of their parents and siblings.

The judge's struggle to balance the Metrolink victims' economic, psychological and physical hurt infused the judgment with unusual pathos.

He graphically recounted the apocalyptic scene of the crash aftermath as consistently related to him by survivors, and saluted the selfless acts of passengers who were able to walk away but did not.

"The first reaction was not to flee but to stay and render assistance, even if it was something as simple as a phone call on behalf of a fellow injured passenger," the judge said.

Each claimant who appeared in his courtroom between March and early June gave virtually identical testimony on the minutes and hours after the crash, which investigators blamed on the Metrolink engineer who failed to heed a stop signal because he was text-messaging. The engineer, Robert Sanchez, was killed in the head-on collision with a Union Pacific freight train but was not included in the settlement.

"The sound of the crash was deafening, only to be replaced by complete, total and eerie silence," Lichtman said in his reconstruction of the accident. "Silence coupled with debris floating in the air along with the sun reflecting through the debris provided a sensation of another dimension."

Until the pain of the injuries set in and terrified screams shattered the silence, many of the passengers thought they were experiencing death, the judge said.

Lichtman privately decided a tentative award after hearing each claimant's case, which totaled $264 million even while keeping in mind the statutory cap, he said. He provided no details on how he trimmed the award categories to fit the compensation available.

The judge was aware of efforts by federal lawmakers to get the cap raised by Congress, but in the end was forced to reduce his initial undisclosed outlays to add up to $200 million, said Paul Kiesel, liaison attorney for the 76 law firms involved in the settlement process.

A federal law passed in 1997 caps a company's liability for a single train accident at $200 million — a sum never previously exceeded by damage awards. Lichtman said it was grossly insufficient to address the valid claims of Chatsworth crash survivors who will need lifelong medical care and families who lost children and providers. The 122 families and individuals awarded compensation had collectively sought up to $350 million, the judge said.

California's congressional delegation earlier this week made a bipartisan appeal to the chairman of Veolia, the French conglomerate that includes former Metrolink contract operator Connex, to provide the additional compensation needed by the crash victims. With no response to that appeal and seeing little prospect of increased funds, Lichtman pared his award calculations and entered the judgment late Wednesday, Kiesel said.

Veolia issued an unsigned statement saying that the settlement "brings closure to a legal process that was agreed to by all the parties involved in this tragic accident," but made no reference to the recent appeals for more money for the survivors.

Many of those who survived the crash have post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological damage that could haunt them for the rest of their lives, Lichtman said, calling PTSD "the elephant in the room" as he sought to balance already accrued medical bills with treatment needs not yet fully apparent.

Assigning values to the broad range of injuries and losses, the judge said, was like dumping a carton of eggs on the floor and then "trying to determine which egg is cracked more."

carol.williams@latimes.com

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