Metrolink crash victims want Congress to raise ceiling on damages

Victims of the 2008 Metrolink crash in Chatsworth told an aide to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Friday that they were disappointed in Congress’ failure to increase a railroad liability cap that left them inadequately compensated for their injuries and financial losses.

About 20 victims and relatives of those killed in the collision with a Union Pacific freight train met privately at the Simi Valley Library with Molly O’Brien, a field representative for the Democratic senator from California. Several met with reporters afterward.

For more than an hour, they told how they’ve expressed their extreme frustration with elected officials and asked that Feinstein press Congress to raise the limit on how much money railroads can be compelled to pay in damages to accident victims and their families. They also demanded that they be able to testify before federal lawmakers.

“Words cannot express what this has done to my spirit,” said Jeanette Noble, 56, of Camarillo, whose father, Dennis Arnold, was killed in the crash. “Government is supposed to protect the people, not corporations that act negligently. People were maimed and killed on their own soil by a foreign company.”’

At the time of the disaster, Metrolink had contracted with Connex, a subsidiary of the French conglomerate Veolia, to supply and supervise train crews. Federal investigators primarily blamed the collision on a Connex engineer who they believe failed to see a stop signal because he was texting on his cellphone, which was prohibited by Metrolink.

The amount of damages was limited by a 1997 federal law — the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act — which set a liability ceiling of $200 million per accident.

Given that 25 were killed and 135 injured in the Chatsworth crash, the amount was at least $64 million less than fair, according to a Los Angeles Superior Court judge who determined last year how much each victim would receive.

After the accident, then-Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) introduced two bills to increase the liability cap to $500 million and $275 million, respectively. Both measures, opposed by railroads and transit agencies, failed in the House of Representatives. Nothing has been done since.

“The cap is a joke,” said Frank Kohler, 66, of Simi Valley, whose severe head injury has prevented him from returning to work as a critical care nurse. “The judge told us that what he would have to give us was far less than appropriate.”

Although his lawyer asked for $1.8 million in damages, Kohler said he received $600,000. After attorney’s fees, living expenses and reimbursements to his medical and disability insurance companies, he said he has about $120,000 left.

Barbara Kloster, 76, of Thousand Oaks said her 57-year-old son Michael was almost cut in half in the wreck and now requires lifetime care. His lawyer requested $21 million for him; he received $7 million. Kloster estimated that her son could end up $500,000 in the red after all his legal and medical insurance bills are paid.

“We are tired of being forgotten,” she said. “What if this had happened to a member of Congress or one of their relatives? If it had, we wouldn’t be here right now.”