A commuter rail agency agreed to pay about $30 million to settle most of the lawsuits from a derailment that killed 11 people and injured another 180 after a driver trying to commit suicide parked his gas-drenched SUV on the tracks, attorneys said Wednesday.
Jerome Ringler, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said Metrolink agreed to settle nearly 90 percent of the cases, including nine wrongful death claims and 15 serious injury cases.
He declined to characterize the cases still under negotiation because he didn't want to affect the settlements. Both sides are trying to resolve the remaining cases ahead of trial set for Jan. 4, he said.
"Metrolink is working diligently to reach a fair and reasonable resolution of each of the few remaining cases," agency spokesman Francisco Oaxaca said.
The Jan. 26, 2005, disaster in suburban Glendale was triggered when Juan Alvarez parked a Jeep Cherokee on the tracks.
Changed his mind about suicide
A fast-moving Metrolink train struck the SUV, derailed and struck a parked Union Pacific locomotive before colliding with another Metrolink train traveling in the other direction.
Alvarez was convicted last year of murder for causing the crash and sentenced to 11 consecutive life terms. He admitted driving onto the tracks in an attempt to commit suicide but said he changed his mind at the last minute and couldn't get the SUV off the tracks.
He jumped out of the way before impact.
"We believe the Glendale settlements have been fair and reasonable given that Juan Alvarez ... has been subsequently convicted," Ringler said.
If the civil trial proceeds, Ringler and his co-counsel, Brian Panish, plan to argue the wreck could have been prevented if the engineer had hit the emergency brake. They said data from the train showed the engineer applied the service brake for six seconds, instead of immediately hitting the emergency brake.
In a deposition, the engineer said he applied the emergency brake as soon as he realized the SUV was parked across the tracks.
"With the current momentum to resolve the remaining cases, we believe settlement of all cases is a high probability," Panish said in a statement.
Horrific scene of mangled rail cars
The early morning derailment created a horrific scene of mangled rail cars. Workers from nearby businesses scrambled to rescue the injured before firefighters reached the scene.
In one halting image, a passenger trapped beneath metal debris wrote his farewell to his wife and children in blood. The man survived.
It was the deadliest rail disaster in California history until last year, when a Metrolink train collided with a freight train in suburban Chatsworth, killing 25 people. A federal investigation revealed a number of safety violations, including a text message sent by the commuter train's engineer seconds before the collision.
The Metrolink system is operated by the Southern California Regional Rail Authority, comprised of five county transportation agencies.