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Control System Fails Test-Is System a Cause of the June 2009 Crash?

Posted on behalf of Goldberg Finnegan, LLC on Jun 30, 2009 in Personal Injury

Metro had in place an automatic train control system that in theory, should have prevented the June 22, 2009 metro train crash in Washington, D.C. The system failed. In the days after the crash, the system was tested again by federal regulators (NTSB) and it failed the test. What good is a safety system if it does not work? The fact that this system failed allowed the crash to occur.

In other words, if the technology had worked properly, the system would have prevented the crash.

What this most likely means is that the train operated by Metro Employee Jeanice McMillan likely did not receive information that a train was stopped ahead of her. I am troubled by this. It seems that the metro bus and train operators rely too heavily on technological systems. We all know that systems can fail. We all have computers and they work most of the time but not all of the time. The driver of the train still needs to pay attention and if there is a train ahead of it that is stopped, the driver needs to hit the brakes and stop the train.

Also, the train that stopped should have radioed to the train behind that it was stopped. If this had occurred, the crash would not have happened regardless of the system/technological failure. The "system" that failed assumed that the coast was clear and apparently automatically set the speed of Ms. McMillan's train at 59 MPH. The person at Metro in charge of these "systems" is Matthew L. Matyuf (He is the Superintendent of the Automatic Train Control Division and he has been temporarily reassigned). Victims of this metro train crash should be angry. Metro train operators should not rely on automatic pilot.

Instead, they should manually be responsible for operating the trains and only rely on the autopilot when there is a medical emergency or other good reason to do so. There is a long history of problems with Metro's automatic systems. In 1999 relays were known to be prematurely failing. The manufacturer of the relays is Alstom Signaling.

Another issue that has arisen for the Washington DC train accident victims is whether to accept money from WMATA for funeral expenses, medical expenses, etc. At this time, our lawyers are currently researching this issue and are unable to provide a definitive answer.

Therefore, to be 100% safe, such funds should not be accepted from Metro at this time. While at first glance it seems that it would be ok to accept such funds (as long as no release or other documents are signed), we are concerned that Metro and/or the D.C. Court of Appeals could somehow hold acceptance of such funds to be an accord and satisfaction of sorts which would bar further claims.

Anything is possible with a catastrophic loss like this that could possibly bankrupt WMATA. Metro is a quasi-governmental entity and they have been known to play games with the rights of victims and when it is in their interest, they play hardball.

For example, in a recent Maryland case, Metro successfully argued that they were covered by the Maryland Tort Claims Act and therefore claims against they were capped just as if one were suing the State of Maryland. Therefore, to be safe, we recommend that victims place the D.C. Government on notice pursuant to 12-309 of the D.C. Code as soon as possible to prevent WMATA from making a similar argument in these cases.

Notice under 12-309 must be given properly within 180 days or claims against the DC Government are barred forever. We are also concerned that the D.C. Council could pass legislation indicating that those who took money for medical expenses or funeral expenses are barred from further legal action against Metro. This is unlikely, put it is possible. Therefore, the best advice I can give at this time is that crash victims should not accept funds from Metro for funeral expenses or medical expenses.

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