Train crash survivors present claims to LA judge

Metrolink train crash
Metrolink train crash
Steven Cuevas/KPCC

Two of the more than 100 people injured when a passenger train slammed head-on into a freight train 2 1/2 years ago told a judge Friday of the horrific scene and their suffering in the aftermath. One of the most seriously injured, Richard Myles, told the judge determining how to divide a $200 million settlement that the crash damaged his spine, broke his neck and cut short his aspirations to reach the top of his profession as a high-ranking manager in the Los Angeles Department of Sanitation.

His lawyer, R. Edward Pfeister Jr., asked that Myle receive $10 to $12 million from the pool that will be divided among the families of 25 who were killed and 100 who were injured. Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman reminded attorneys that there is a federally mandated cap on the fund. He estimated it will take two months to hear from all the victims and divide the money.

Norman Nicholson, the first victim to testify, described how he escaped critical injury and wound up helping others escape from the Sept. 12, 2008, crash. His lawyer suggested he should receive between $200,000 and $300,000 for his injuries and the emotional distress of witnessing the tragedy.

The trains slammed together in the Chatsworth section of the San Fernando Valley after the passenger train went through a red signal. Investigators believe the train's engineer, who was killed in the crash, was sending text messages at the time.

The settlement was reached last August by Southern California's Metrolink commuter train system and its former contractor, Connex Railroad, both of which accepted liability for the collision.

In a strange coincidence, Myles said he also survived the 2005 Glendale Metrolink crash that had been the deadliest on record until the Chatsworth crash. But he was not seriously injured in that crash and returned to taking the train to work because it was the most convenient form of transportation for him.

Myles described how he emigrated from Mexico with no education, enrolled in school at the age of 17 having taught himself to read and write, and began his career at the sanitation department as a refuse collector.

"I got a late start. So I was driven," he said, noting that he rose through several jobs to reach the post of district manager. Had he not been injured, he said, he had hoped to become director of the department.

His wife testified that her husband, who loved his work, came home from the hospital a changed man. She said he was bedridden for four months and when he became mobile, he had to spend time lying prone on the floor to relieve pain. He underwent several surgeries and faces more in the future, his lawyer said.

Myles said he remembers little of the accident beyond pulling out of the station, shielding his eyes from glaring sunlight, and then, "I woke up and I was on the ground."

He said bloody, mangled people lay around him crying for help, but he could do nothing.

"I felt I had to hold my head or it would fall off," he said.

His wife, Helen, who was in the train behind his, rushed to the crash scene and did not know until the next morning that he was alive.

Myles' lawyer presented a film prepared for the court telling his life story and showing scenes of the crash, including the car he occupied. The back of a seat was broken off from the force of his body slamming against it.

Myles, 60, said he tried to return to work six months later but found he no longer had the concentration to focus on his job. He took early retirement. He and his wife, who relished taking physically demanding vacations in the past, said they are now confined to cruises if they vacation at all.

Lichtman told both men he understands how difficult it is to relive the horror of that day and thanked them.

"Telling me the day in the life of what you experienced helps me to make a decision," he said.

Lichtman has experience overseeing complex settlements, having allocated damages of nearly $200 million to victims of abuse by priests in the Diocese of San Diego in 2007.

In those cases, Lichtman wrote that he wanted to award more money based on the severity of the cases but there wasn't enough money to compensate them all. That's because the diocese, which had filed for bankruptcy protection before the settlement agreement, couldn't pay more.

Lichtman faces a similar issue because the $200 million settlement fund for victims of the train crash, which is the largest of its kind for a passenger train wreck, is the maximum allowed under federal law. Congress set the liability cap in 1997 to help keep passenger train systems such as Amtrak operating when faced with major lawsuits.

© 2011 The Associated Press.