A Seattle man is among the first survivors to file lawsuits against Amtrak for a Sept. 25 crash in Montana that left three dead and dozens injured.
Saint Matthew “Matt” Johnson, 40, was on the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle when it left the tracks near Joplin, Montana. He and the other plaintiffs who filed suit Thursday suffered physical injury as well as severe emotional and psychological trauma, according to the federal lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court Northern District of Illinois.
Johnson and others who were on the train are still very shaken up, having gone through something no one should ever have to experience, said Sean Driscoll of Clifford Law Offices in Chicago.
“I don’t think he or we really know the severity of his injuries,” said Driscoll, who represented victims of the deadly Amtrak derailment south of Tacoma in 2017. Most passengers, he said, will likely need both physical and emotional therapy for years to come.
The other suits are filed on behalf of Stuart and Karen Dixon, age 60 and 57, from Berwyn, Pennsylvania, and Justin Ruddell, 40, of Klamath Falls, Oregon. The four suits filed Thursday bring the number of cases being handled by the Chicago firm against Amtrak in connection with the Montana crash to 11.
Three fatal Amtrak derailments have occurred over the span of six years, including in Philadelphia in 2015. Amtrak, which is owned by the federal government, adopted an arbitration clause in 2019 that essentially states that if an individual agrees to purchase a ticket, they waive their right to a trial by jury and instead resolve an issue through arbitration, Driscoll said.
Arbitration shuts out the public and lacks formal review, attorney Kristofer Riddle said at a Thursday news conference held by Clifford Law Offices. The clause, Riddle said, is intended to prevent victims of derailment incidents from having their cases heard in the U.S. judicial system.
Ruddell, the only plaintiff to speak at the news conference Thursday, said he was on his way to the restroom when he felt the train jolt and suddenly fall on its side. As a train door peeled away, he held on tightly to a rail in the restroom as dirt and gravel flew in.
“I thought I was going to die,” he said. “I saw death and destruction around me that I’ll never be able to forget.“
He broke two vertebrae and five ribs and sustained other injuries to his head and joints, he said.
It was Ruddell’s first experience riding on an Amtrak train. He was returning home to Seattle after a visit to the East Coast, he said. Ruddell planned the trip as a way to keep a promise he’d made to a friend who died, whose ashes he was carrying, that they’d see the coast together.
Volunteers helped get Ruddell get out of the train, but he said he sat on a car not wanting to leave the site without his friend’s ashes. Someone who recalled where Ruddell was sitting was able to retrieve the intact jar of ashes.
“Amtrak has to do the right thing,” Ruddell said.
Driscoll said his firm is assembling a team of consultants to investigate what led to the derailment.
“Trains don’t derail by themselves,” he said.
The hope with these lawsuits is to ensure survivors are compensated fairly, make sure no other derailment happens, hold Amtrak accountable and let them know they can’t use the arbitration clause to their advantage, Driscoll said.
“This derailment should not be happening in this country in 2021. It’s inexcusable,” said attorney Henry Simmons of the Clifford Law Office during the Thursday news conference.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the place and year of the Amtrak derailment in Washington.