TACOMA — Three people who sued Amtrak over the deadly 2017 derailment in Pierce County were awarded a total $17 million by a jury for their injuries and suffering.
Amtrak admitted negligence after its first passenger train on a new trackway flew off a curve at 80 mph near DuPont. Several railcars landed on Interstate 5, killing three people and injuring more than 60 others on Dec. 18, 2017.
A federal court jury in Tacoma awarded $7 million to Blaine Wilmotte; $2 million to his wife, Madison Wilmotte; and $7.75 million to Dale Skyllingstad.
Skyllingstad, a rail enthusiast, suffered brain, pelvis and spinal injuries, according to attorney David Beninger, of Seattle. Blaine Wilmotte was in a truck traveling south on I-5 when a railcar trapped him for 90 minutes. His wife sought damages based on her husband’s trauma, personality changes and diminished ability to work.
“Madison Wilmotte was pregnant at the time her husband was crushed in his truck. She will never forget that fateful call as her husband cried out in unbearable pain and she could do nothing to help him,” said a statement by another plaintiffs’ lawyer, Sean Driscoll, of Chicago.
U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle said a new trial date should be set for fourth plaintiff Adam Harris’ claims because a doctor testified about an examination of Harris that was not disclosed to Amtrak before trial.
These are the first of many cases, including lawsuits by Amtrak conductor Garrick Freeman, who was familiarizing himself with the new route, and longtime Amtrak passenger Rudolf Wetzel. Under federal law, Amtrak is capped at $295 million total payouts for a single collision.
In June, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) published its final report on the crash.
“I’m just amazed at the amount of failure that goes along here,” board vice chairman Bruce Landsberg said in a spring hearing. “We have five or six or seven different organizations that all say safety is their primary responsibility, and yet nobody seems to be responsible,” he said. “And it just flows all the way throughout the entire operation here, from the very top management down to the lower levels.”
The safety board placed primary blame on Sound Transit, which owns the $181 million corridor, for failing to require safety improvements near the curve, where the 80 mph speed limit dropped to 30 mph.
Amtrak Cascades is funded primarily by the Washington State Department of Transportation, which chose not to spend federal stimulus money straightening the curve for about $200 million. WSDOT spread its federal $800 million on projects across the state.
The crash occurred on the inaugural Cascades trip on a rebuilt corridor from Tacoma to Lakewood and DuPont. Engineer Steven Brown had completed only one training trip at the controls on a southbound trip and two northbound.
A speed alarm beeped as the doomed locomotive surpassed 80 mph north of the curve where the speed limit dropped to 30 mph. This was a general speed alarm, to get down to the standard 79 mph, and not prompted by the upcoming 30 mph curve. In-cab video showed the engineer seemed confused, and checked the dashboard for 20 crucial seconds rather than looking out window as the train closed in on the curve, said NTSB investigator Michael Hiller.
“Everybody hated that curve,” Brown told the NTSB.
The sign warning of the 30 mph zone was a full two miles before the curve, a stopping distance used by heavier freight trains. No warning sign appeared at the one-mile point where Amtrak engineers should slow.
At the hearing last spring in Washington, D.C., the NTSB issued its official summary:
“The probable cause of the Amtrak 501 derailment was the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority’s [Sound Transit] failure to provide an effective mitigation for the hazardous curve without Positive Train Control in place, which allowed the Amtrak engineer to enter the 30-mile-per-hour curve at too high of a speed, due to his inadequate training on the territory and inadequate training on the newer equipment,” said chairman Robert Sumwalt.
The Lakewood line was designed to save 10 minutes and improve on-time performance, compared to the longer waterfront route past Tacoma Narrows Bridge, where freight trains often delay Amtrak. Passenger trains still aren’t running yet on the new trackway.
Seattle Times staff reporter Mike Lindblom contributed to this story.