First lawsuit filed in Metro-North crash

Washington –- On the same day that federal investigators said that a portion of track involved in last week’s Metro-North crash had been repaired a month ago, the first lawsuit by an accident victim accusing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority of negligence was filed

A joint bar, used to join two sections of rail together, has become the  focus of investigators -– and of the law firm suing the MTA.

The National Transportation Safety Board said in a statement Friday that a joint bar in the area of the accident had cracked and was repaired by Metro-North after an inspection of the track last month.

It also said Metro-North has begun an inspection of all joint bars on its main-line tracks.

Sections of the rail in the area of the derailment have been shipped to Washington for further tests, the NTSB said. But the NTSB  did not say that the joint bar contributed to the accident. A full report by the agency on the cause of the crash may not be available for months.

Thomas Johnson, a railroad metallurgist and train accident specialist based in St. Louis Park, Minn., said it’s likely that the joint bar should have been replaced, not repaired, especially on a heavily used track that carries freight trains as well as millions of passengers every year. Johnson said that according to federal specifications, joint bars on Class 4 tracks, the type involved in the crash, should be replaced not repaired. 

“Weld repairing a crack does not fix the root cause of the problem,” he said.

Initially, the MTA said it would not comment, but late in the day, company spokesman Adam Lisberg said the damaged joint bar had been replaced. NTSB spokesman Nicholas Worrell said Friday night that replacing the track was what the NTSB meant in its statement when it said earlier that a repair had been made.

In a statement released earlier in the day, the NTSB said the engineer on the eastbound train said he saw “an unusual condition on the track” as he approached the I-95 overpass. The train derailed, came to a stop, and was swiped by a westbound train 20 seconds later, according to the statement.

The NTSB said information from the train’s recorders indicate that the westbound train had applied emergency brakes before hitting the eastbound train.

The agency has concluded the first stage of its investigation, collecting photos, video, data, reports and records and conducting interviews of Metro-North employees, witnesses and first responders.

Suit filed

Meanwhile, a lawsuit has been filed in federal court by a New Haven law firm on behalf of Elizabeth Sorensen of Mystic, a 65- year-old passenger on the Metro-North train headed eastbound.

This is the first of what could be many lawsuits against the MTA by some of the dozens of people injured in last week’s crash.

Joel Faxon, of the Stratton Faxon law firm handling the Sorensen case, said it’s “absolutely unacceptable” if the damaged joint bar contributed to the accident because it was not replaced.

He said his firm is trying to collect information from federal agencies, including all joint bar fracture reports the MTA is required to file with the Federal Railroad Administration. Faxon also said the law firm is representing other train crash victims.

In a statement, Stratton Faxon said Sorensen has suffered severe fractures to her legs, arm and pelvis, and has undergone multiple surgeries.

“She also sustained a substantial brain trauma when she was thrown around the interior of the train at the time of its derailment. She is expected to remain hospitalized for several months,” the law firm said.

Accusing the MTA of negligence, Michael Stratton said in the lawsuit, “this crash is absolute proof that our railways need to be modernized.”

“For the billions of dollars that the state of Connecticut has received and the federal government has spent on the rail system, it is astonishing that collisions like this still happen. Where is all the money going? Certainly not to safety improvements.”

The tracks are owned by the state of Connecticut. But under a service agreement, maintenance and repairs of the tracks are  Metro-North’s responsibility.

The agreement requires Connecticut to pay 65 percent of the cost of operating the line and MTA to pay 35 percent.