L.A. judge dismisses Metrolink motions

GLENDALE — A Los Angeles Superior Court judge denied a Metrolink request on Thursday to throw out more than 100 cases against the agency in connection with a 2005 train wreck that killed 11 people and injured nearly 200 others, officials said.

There are 113 active lawsuits against Metrolink in connection with the incident, and 29 plaintiffs have settled, said attorney Edward R. Pfiester, who represents the wife of the conductor killed in the Glendale crash, among others.

Judge Emilie Elias denied two motions made by Metrolink on Thursday — one to essentially throw out the cases, and another motion to uphold federal regulations over state law on the use of the controversial "push-pull" method, in which a locomotive pushes the train from behind in one direction but pulls in the other direction, Pfiester said.

"The state law in question is negligence," he said. "Under state law, any common carrier has utmost duty to the care of its passengers …. Metrolink said, 'Wait a minute, you can't apply that law because there is already a federal law. But the plaintiffs said, 'Hold on. There is no regulation, the [Federal Railroad Administration] just asked to have the issues studied."

However, Elias dismissed the suggestion that Metrolink misrepresented themselves on the Internet, said Clark Aristei, the plaintiffs' liaison counsel.

Plaintiffs took issue with claims on Metrolink's website that the company practiced "technically superior and safe operations" and that "we take every precaution to keep your trip safe," Aristei said.

Aristei said the dismissal was a setback but it wouldn't stop the case.

"It shortens the legal theories, but the lawsuit is still going forward," he said.

Nevertheless, he said he was glad the court upheld the plaintiffs' other arguments.

"We feel that the case is now moving forward and that's good," he said. "In effect, Metrolink and MTA can't try to derail these cases by hiding behind federal law."

Metrolink officials had not yet been briefed on Thursday's court proceedings by press deadline, spokeswoman Denise Tyrell said. While she confirmed the organization was asking for a dismissal, she would not comment further.

Pfiester said Metrolink's attorneys showed interest in appealing Thursday's denials.

The suits, filed on behalf of some of the survivors of the killed and injured in the crash, claim Metrolink was negligent and criticize Metrolink's use of the "push-pull" method.

Even though the train is driven by an engineer at the front, the lack of weight from an engine makes the front car susceptible to derailment, critics have said.

The issues stem from a Jan. 26., 2005, incident where Juan Manuel Alvarez allegedly parked his 1993 Jeep Cherokee on the train tracks near Chevy Chase Drive, causing a three-train wreck .

Police said witnesses saw Alvarez douse the Jeep in gasoline, drive it onto the tracks, and then douse the inside of the truck, before abandoning it there. A southbound Metrolink train smashed into the Jeep and derailed, hitting a parked locomotive and careening into a northbound commuter train.

Prosecutors have since announced they would seek the death penalty against him.

Alvarez's case is pending.

A status conference in the civil case is Dec. 8.

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