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Vets sue railroad over fatal crash in Texas

Nov. 28, 2012 - 04:14PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 28, 2012 - 04:14PM  |  
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LUBBOCK, Texas — Two Army veterans and their wives on Wednesday sued the railroad company whose train hit a truck carrying veterans and their spouses during a parade in Texas.

Four veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were killed and 16 more people were injured in the Nov. 15 collision. They had been riding on a flatbed truck in the parade organized to honor wounded veterans for their military service and were in the process of crossing the tracks when the crash happened. Officials have said the truck entered the crossing after the warning signals began sounding.

The lawsuit was filed by Richard Sanchez and Todd King and their wives, but one of their attorneys said he expects other veterans to join it. He said the lawsuit was filed with just two couples because steps needed to be taken quickly to preserve evidence.

The lawsuit claims negligence and recklessness on the part of Union Pacific Railroad Inc. and Smith Industries Inc., the company that owned the truck, led to the collision. It was filed in Midland, where the crash happened.

The veterans have not asked for a specific amount in damages because their "No. 1 desire is that no accident like this ever happens again," said Bob Pottroff, one of the attorneys representing the two couples.

The lawsuit claims the railroad was negligent in 28 ways, including failing to provide reasonable and timely audible and visual warning of the approaching train and failure to provide a safe railroad crossing. It also says the train did not brake or otherwise attempt to slow and the railroad hadn't fixed what it claims are hazardous conditions posed by the road grade.

Union Pacific spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza-Williams said the company would not comment on the lawsuit specifically, but she noted in an email that federal investigators have already determined the truck moved onto the tracks after the red flashing lights and bells activated.

"Disregarding active warning signals is extremely dangerous, and we urge drivers to stop once the red flashing lights and bells activate," she wrote.

The lawsuit accuses Smith Industries of having a driver who, among other things, failed to keep a proper lookout and didn't exercise reasonable care for the veterans on the truck's trailer.

The attorney representing Smith Industries, Jimmie B. Todd of Odessa, was away on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

The driver of the truck, 50-year-old Dale Andrew Hayden of Midland, is an Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is employed by Smith Industries.

Also Wednesday, the Texas Department of Transportation released documents showing the crossing's warning system was designed to become operational at least 30 seconds before the arrival of trains. On the day of the crash, only 20 seconds elapsed from the time the system was activated to the train's arrival, according to the NTSB.

Twenty seconds meets federal guidelines, but railroads can — and do — provide longer intervals at some crossings.

The documents, released to The Associated Press and other media organizations in response to requests under the Texas Public Information Act, do not show whether the crossing had been upgraded or altered since it was completed in 1991.

A TxDOT official said in an email released with the documents that the crossing was designed for trains that went up to 25 mph, but they now travel on that line at up to 70 mph. Darin Kosmak, section director for the department's rail-highway division, wrote in the email to TxDOT's legal counsel that the state expected the railroad to upgrade its safety mechanism to match the greater speeds, but had not verified that changes were made.

Espinoza-Williams said in an email that the design documents released by the state "do not reflect current conditions at the ... crossing, which clearly has more than six trains per day operating at a maximum speed of more than 25 mph."

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