HELENA, Mont. — The family of a Georgia couple who were on a trip celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary when they died in an Amtrak train derailment in Montana has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Amtrak and BSNF Railway, which owns the tracks.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in federal court in Illinois, says Amtrak and BSNF Railway were responsible for the Sept. 25, 2021, derailment in north-central Montana that killed three people — including Donald and Marjorie Varnadoe — and injured at least 44 passengers and crew members. The Empire Builder was traveling from Chicago to Seattle.

The Varnadoes, of St. Simons Island, Georgia, had boarded the Amtrak Empire Builder in Chicago on Sept. 24. They were in the observation car when the train derailed near Joplin, Montana. The observation car, which has larger windows, tipped onto its side and slid along the tracks before eventually coming to a stop, the complaint states.

The couple were thrown around inside the car and suffered excruciating injuries before their deaths, the complaint states.

The National Transportation Safety Board has not completed its investigation of the derailment. But the complaint lists possible causes ranging from track and equipment failure to human error and says Amtrak and BSNF Railway were negligent in failing to prevent the crash.

Amtrak will respond to the complaint in court filings, spokesperson Marc Magliari said Tuesday. BNSF Railway can’t comment on pending legislation, spokesperson Lena Kent said.


The complaint seeks damages for the deaths of Donald and Marjorie Varnadoe and for their pain and suffering. The family is also seeking damages for loss of income, emotional support and companionship along with funeral costs and attorneys fees.

Donald Varnadoe, 74, had a career in real estate and served on a school board while Marjorie Varnadoe, 72, worked in education. They were active in their community and their church, the complaint states.

Robert Kozlowski, Donald Varnadoe’s boss at Coldwell Banker Access Reality in Brunswick, Georgia, said Varnadoe had called the office the day before he died and said they were having a dream vacation.

The Varnadoes are survived by their son, Jason Varnadoe, who is administrator of their estates, along with his wife and their son.

“Mom and dad passionately believed in doing good for others. Dad was famously known for always asking folks, ‘How can I help?’ ” Jason Varnadoe said in a statement. ”We know they’d want their memory to serve a positive purpose, and our hope is that through this tragedy, lessons are learned and America’s rails become safer so that other families are spared our unimaginable pain and suffering.”

The wife of the third person who died in the derailment, Zach Schneider, 28, of Fairview Heights, Illinois, has also filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Amtrak and BSNF Railway.