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Lawyer: Train engineer's cell phone use ignored

Lawyers for victims in a deadly commuter rail crash say the train engineer's employer knew he regularly used his cell phone while operating trains.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Lawyers for more than a dozen victims in a deadly commuter rail crash accused the engineer's employer of ignoring complaints that he regularly used his cell phone while operating trains.

Another employee said he called managers at Connex Railroad LLC about Robert Sanchez's constant cell phone use about two weeks before the Sept. 12 disaster and complained a second time to a co-worker within three hours of the crash, attorney Edward Pfiester said.

The employee also claimed that some months before the crash, a Connex inspector doing a routine field test found Sanchez's cell phone was turned on, which violates company and Metrolink rules against engineers using cell phones on duty, Pfiester said.

"It's been against the written rules of Metrolink for a long, long time. They busted him for it, but they didn't really do anything about it," the lawyer said.

Message sent before crash
Federal investigators have said Sanchez sent a text message 22 seconds before the train collided with a Union Pacific freight train in the San Fernando Valley community of Chatsworth, killing 25 people and injuring more than 130 others.

Sanchez died in the crash.

Pfiester did not release the name of the employee, saying the person feared for his job, and did not provide documentation to back the allegations. But Pfiester said he believes the claims are credible because the person worked directly with Sanchez.

Pfiester said he intends to subpoena the person and obtain records from the company.

Connex is a subsidiary of Veolia Transportation, a private operator of bus, rail, shuttle and other transportation services throughout North America.

Strict cell phone policies
Erica Swerdlow, a spokeswoman for Veolia, said the company has strict cell phone policies that are strongly enforced. She declined further comment, citing the federal investigation of the crash and the litigation.

The allegations were contained in an amended lawsuit filed Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of 23 plaintiffs, including passengers who were injured or killed on the train and their spouses.

Along with Connex and Veolia, the lawsuit names the regional rail authority that operates Metrolink and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority as defendants.

The lawsuits allege negligence and seek general and punitive damages.