A federal judge Thursday denied a motion for dismissal by CSX Transportation and the maintenance company responsible for inspecting the rails relating to the February 2015 Mount Carbon derailment, allowing the lawsuit to move forward.
In a 15-page decision, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia Chief Judge Robert C. Chambers ruled the lawsuit filed by approximately 300 families against Sperry Rail Inc. and CSX Transportation has merit, and he was especially hard on Sperry’s claim as a third-party contractor it’s not responsible to the plaintiffs.
As expected, Chambers did release the CSX corporate holding company as a defendant.
Key to Chambers’ decision was the plaintiffs’ allegations that Sperry found vertical split heads on a rail, but failed to act properly.
In October 2015, the Federal Railroad Administration stated the derailment, which displaced more than 1,000 people from their homes for days, was preventable.
The report found prior to the derailment, two separate tests conducted by Sperry, a CSX contractor, failed to detect a broken rail, resulting from a vertical split head defect, a longitudinal fracture in the upper part of a rail used for supporting and guiding the wheels of railroad cars.
In December 2014 Sperry used digital rail test equipment, similar to sonar, which showed indications of a rail flaw at the future derailment site. A subsequent test, in January 2015, noted a similar but more significant rail flaw indication at the same location, according to the report.
“Despite indications of potential flaws, the Sperry operator failed to conduct a ground visual examination or hand test to confirm the flaws requirement,” the report reads.
During an interview with the FRA investigators, the driver said he did not leave his truck to complete the required visual inspection because he assumed the rough rail surface condition, not a rail flaw, caused a positive test, according to the report.
Chambers’ opinion dashed Sperry’s argument that as a third-party contractor it has no responsibility to the plaintiffs.
Chambers wrote, “… Sperry specifically claims that ‘there is no allegation or claim that merely testing a rail is an ‘inherently and intrinsically dangerous’ activity.’ The Court finds this argument misses the point.”
Sperry’s attorneys argued as a independent contractor its job was merely to rest the rails for defects.
However, the judge continued, while Sperry’s role was to conduct tests and search for internal rail flows, “Sperry cannot avoid its duty through the rule abrogating independent contractors’ duties …”
Mark Bryant, an attorney for the families, said this decision allows the case to move forward.
Bryant, of The Bryant Law Center in Paducah, Ky., said the parties will return to court soon.