A former University of Montana student injured five years ago when the car he was riding on Interstate 90 drove through a toxic cloud stemming from a derailed Montana Rail Link (MRL) train near Alberton will not be compensated for his injuries, a jury ruled April 13.
Sam Austin of Alpine, Calif., sued MRL in Federal District Court claiming that the respiratory problems he now suffers from were caused by his exposure to those chemicals. His lawsuit contended that the railroad was negligent in its maintenance and inspection of a section of track believed to have caused the April 11, 1996 derailment.
During the trial, MRL did not deny the cause of Austin’s injuries, but consistently maintained that the derailment was the result of an undetectable flaw inside the rail.
A six-man, one-woman jury agreed, saying that MRL was not negligent in the accident, which released 133 tons of toxic chemicals into the environment, sending hundreds to the hospital and forcing the evacuation of more than 1,000 people for three weeks.
“The evidence, and the argument regarding the evidence, was that Montana Rail Link has always accepted its obligation to be responsible for the immediate effects of the derailment and the problems that were caused,” says Randy Cox, attorney for MRL. “We’ve always expressed a desire to reach satisfactory claims of those legitimately affected.”
In some states, transporters of hazardous materials can be held strictly liable for injuries and damages caused when their deadly cargoes spill, and an injured party does not need to prove the transporter was negligent in order to recover damages. In Montana, however, carriers are not held to that legal standard, which is why MRL can admit responsibility for the derailment but avoid paying damages.
“In our opinion it’s a bad verdict and we intend to appeal it,” says Ted Lyon, Austin’s attorney. Lyon says that MRL has never compensated Austin for any of his losses, except to pay for his initial emergency room visit.
Cox says he expects some of the remaining lawsuits against MRL will be settled in light of this recent verdict, which was the first Alberton lawsuit to go to trial.
“I hope that justice eventually will prevail,” says Lyon. “We’re a hundred percent committed to taking this all the way up to the appellate courts. We want Montana Rail Link to understand that we’re not giving up on these people.”
The next case stemming from the Alberton spill is scheduled to begin in state court in Missoula June 11.