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Legal info for Amtrak 501 train crash victims: what you need to know

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This morning, at 7:33 PST, Amtrak train 501 derailed on Sound Transit tracks. This is a truly shocking and horrifying crash, and our hearts go out to those involved.

We put together some information for those who were injured or lost family members in the Amtrak train crash. Please know this is general information, not direct legal advice.

- Attorney Kevin Coluccio


What to do first

The most important thing to do right now is to take care of yourself.

No one is ready for the life-changing consequences of an event like this.

Physical care: Get the proper medical treatment. Adrenaline from a major event like this can last for a long time, masking potentially serious injuries. Pay attention to your body, and follow up with your doctors.

Mental health:  This was a violent, traumatic event. Expect that the aftermath and recovery will be challenging, and that many people experience post-traumatic stress symptoms. You are not alone, and it does get easier as time goes on.

Emotional:  People in your life may understand how emotionally exhausting it is to experience a life-threatening event like this—or to lose someone in a fatal train crash. Optum Health in Pierce County has an expert-staffed emotional support helpline for those affected by the Amtrak 501 train derailment: call 866-342-6892.

Please, get the help you need, and don’t push yourself too hard.


 

How to Protect Your Legal Interests

Often Amtrak has claims people at and around the scene to talk with victims.

They also go to hospitals to talk with victims and they regularly reach out to family members of those killed.

While this may seem harmless, you are not in a position to make that determination right now. For your own sake:

Do not provide them with any information unless and until you have spoken with an attorney.

Do not sign anything.

Do not give a statement, written or recorded.


Talking to lawyers

I can say this because I’ve been practicing law in Washington state for more than 30 years. I’ve seen too many injured people make a quick decision about hiring a lawyer and regret their choice later.

There are lots of attorneys that will take the opportunity to contact victims for the purpose of signing them up as clients quickly, before they can do research.

  • Take time to meet and talk with a few attorneys.
  • Make sure to review any fee agreement carefully.
  • Ask who will be the primary attorney assigned to your case, and if you will be communicating with them directly.

I would hesitate to sign an agreement with an attorney who practices outside of Washington State. In most cases, an attorney who isn’t licensed to practice here will  need to associate with a Washington-based lawyer, in most cases.

Because the Washington attorney is going to be more familiar with the court system, the court rules and the judges, you should chose that person yourself.

One final note of caution on choosing a train crash attorney

Anyone who claims that they are investigating the train crash are, in my opinion, overstating this fact as a means to sign up clients.

Ask for specifics about their investigation. The NTSB and local authorities are not going to allow outside investigators into the crash site.

Key evidence will be preserved and available for inspection in the future.


WSDOT-amtrak train derailment-Washington State

From the Washington State Department of Transportation, an early view of this morning’s train crash

What happens next: the investigation

Train derailments in U.S. fall under federal jurisdiction.

While Washington State Patrol and local police will be assisting, the Amtrak 501 train derailment will be investigated by Department of Transportation’s Federal Railway Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

How an NTSB investigation works

The crash will be investigated in great detail by the NTSB.

The NTSB GO Team is already on the ground at the crash scene in DuPont, Washington.

They will look at all possible factors in the train derailment, including:

  • The black box on the train. Just like airplanes, trains have indestructible black boxes that store information about braking, train speed, and events before the derailment.
  • The train tracks. The investigators will look for potential obstructions or problems on the train tracks, including initial (unverified) reports that a truck obstructed the tracks.
  • The train’s crew and engineers. NTSB investigators will interview everyone, and look for potential human factors and errors, including fatigue, medication, distraction, work hours,etc.

How the NTSB investigation may affect legal claims

People who have been hurt—or have lost a family member—in this terrible tragedy are eventually going to have to consider how their medical bills will be paid, when and how they’ll get back to work, and how this will affect their lives going forward.

You should know that the NTSB investigation will eventually reach a conclusion about the cause of the Amtrak 501 train derailment.

NTSB conclusions are generally not admissible in personal injury lawsuits

The NTSB fact finding, however, may be admissible in court.

That means things like witness statements, photographs and inspection reports from the NTSB can be used by your lawyer, because they are objective and not subjective opinions.

This can be a little confusing, so I’ll give you an example from my own law practice.

A couple of years ago, an oversized truck hit the top of Skagit River Bridge in Washington. A section of the bridge collapsed, dropping two vehicles into the river below.

Skagit River Bridge Collapse-Washington Injury Lawyer-ColuccioLaw

That truck crash was significant enough for the NTSB to come out and investigate. I represented a young man who was injured in the bridge collapse.

We were able to use the NTSB’s witness statements, inspections of the oversized load, photographs of the bridge damage, and other information in his case—without using the NTSB’s final report.

Hiring expert witnesses

It is important to have qualified and experienced experts involved with your case who understand the workings of the NTSB, and how best to use the information they have gathered.

The NTSB is very careful in their investigations. While whatever conclusions they reach may not be admissible, good expert witnesses will follow the NTSB pattern of practice to support and reach their own conclusions.


 

Final thoughts on the Amtrak 501 train crash

There is a lot of information available—and a lot of speculation. I would urge you to be cautious speaking about the incident publicly.

I will be updating this post as information becomes available over the following days and weeks. If you have questions about the legal processes, making an injury claim, or your legal rights, you can contact me at 206-826-8200, or send me a secure message.

- Attorney Kevin Coluccio 

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