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Settlement offered to victims, kin of deadly California rail crash

By Matt Cherry, CNNRadio
Firefighters survey the wreckage of a September 2008 train collision in California that killed 25 people.
Firefighters survey the wreckage of a September 2008 train collision in California that killed 25 people.
  • The $200 million is the liability cap under federal law in passenger rail accidents
  • Twenty-five people were killed and more than 100 injured
  • Federal investigators determined the train's engineer was sending text messages

(CNN) -- Commuter rail system Metrolink and its former train operating contractor Connex Railroad are offering to pay a $200 million settlement to victims and families of a deadly 2008 crash, according to a Wednesday filing in the U.S. District Court.

Twenty-five people were killed and more than 100 injured when a commuter train collided with a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth, California, on September 12, 2008.

Federal investigators determined the commuter train's engineer, a Connex employee, was sending text messages seconds before the crash.

"The reason we went in this direction was our desire to try and get money to the families of victims as soon as possible," said Richard Katz, vice chairman of the Metrolink board of directors. "By filing this motion in federal court along with Connex, we believe this will take years off litigation and allow families to recover faster."

The $200 million equals the liability cap allowed under federal law in passenger rail accidents.

However, that may only scratch the surface of the overall costs associated with the incident.

"It's probable that the damages will far exceed that amount," said Paul Kiesel, the coordinating counsel for all the lawsuits in the case and whose law firm is representing some of the victims and families .

Kiesel says there are some victims with medical bills of six or seven figures who are likely not to get adequate compensation from this fund.

"It is the taxpayer, the government, who will have to step in and make up the difference, and of course that's not right," Kiesel said.

Katz said Metrolink is working within the boundaries placed on it by Congress.

"We have put the maximum amount on the table, the maximum amount that the law allows to go to the victims and their families, and we're just hopeful that it gets approved quickly and the money gets dispersed quickly," Katz said.

However, Kiesel referred to the $200 million as a "minimum amount," and referred to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in explaining that payouts can exceed liability caps.

"While the maximum BP was required to pay was $75 million, they recognized the need to put up $20 billion," he said.

Kiesel also recommended that Congress take another look at the cap currently in place for passenger rail accidents.

"When they become arbitrary figures that are just utilized without any potential recognition of the scope of the damages that could ultimately occur, it becomes problematic," Kiesel said.

It will be up to the court to approve the settlement -- something Kiesel expects a decision on around the end of the year. Katz says the court would also determine how the settlement money will be doled out and will vary from plaintiff to plaintiff, based on factors like the severity of the injuries and earning potential.

Kiesel admitted the offer does represent a silver lining to the plaintiffs, regardless of the amount.

"There is going to be some closure here," Kiesel said. As these cases continue on, as the wounds remain open, there is probably a sense of some relief that this is coming toward a close."

Katz says Metrolink has taken steps in the aftermath of the disaster to avoid a repeat of what happened in Chatsworth.

"We have added additional safety features on the tracks and additional training. We fired the old operator and brought in a new one, Amtrak, all to try and learn from this mistake."