updated 3/11/2011 3:03:49 PM ET 2011-03-11T20:03:49

One of the more than 100 people injured when a passenger train slammed head-on into a freight train 2½ years ago told a judge Friday of a horrific scene where he had to try to help save others.

Norman Nicholson was the first of dozens of witnesses expected to testify at a hearing to determine how to divide a $200 million settlement among the injured and the families of the 25 people killed in the Sept. 12, 2008, crash.

Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman estimated it will take about two months for him to hear all of the testimony and reach a decision.

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Nicholson's lawyer suggested his client should receive between $200,000 and $300,000 for 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.

Lichtman, who oversaw complex settlements won by people who claimed sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego dioceses, will evaluate what the claims are worth and decide how much each claimant gets after hearing from all of them, said Paul Kiesel, coordinating counsel for all the claimants.

"The judge is going to listen to each and every case and make an award of damages based on evidence presented on the nature and extent of injury," Kiesel said.

When he allocated a nearly $200 million settlement to victims of abuse by priests from the Diocese of San Diego in 2007, 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.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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