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Jury awards $12 million in train suit

June 14, 2006|By Chris Wiebe

PASADENA ? A Los Angeles Superior Court jury on Friday ordered Universal Studios to pay $12 million to a Metrolink passenger who was injured in January 2003 when a Burbank Universal Studios employee drove a company van onto the tracks, ignoring posted signs.

The verdict was the second phase of a proceeding, in which the same jury found Universal's driver, Jacek Wysocki, liable for the collision at the at-grade crossing near Buena Vista Street and San Fernando Boulevard that killed two people and injured 32. Wysocki turned into the train's path after coming to a stop at a flashing red arrow.

As a result of the crash Jennifer Kilpatrick, 52, suffered spinal cord injuries that confine her to a walker and a wheelchair and keep her in "constant discomfort," her attorney Jerome Ringler said.

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"I think it's a fair and just award," Ringler said. "The jury could have clearly given a greater sum ? the evidence would have supported a larger sum. But the sum that they gave was very fair."

Ringler's victory in the liability suit against Universal also applies to approximately two dozen other passengers who were injured in the crash. The dollar amounts of the individual settlements for those plaintiffs have not yet been determined, Ringler said. If their lawyers are not able to negotiate a settlement amount with Universal, those cases will also go to a jury trial, he said.

Representatives from NBC Universal declined to comment.

Universal's defense lawyers argued that the accident was the result of traffic engineers who designed a dangerous intersection with ambiguous signage, Ringler said. A report from the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency that investigates transportation-related accidents, produced similar findings after its own investigation.

But the jury concurred with Kilpatrick that Wysocki had intentionally driven around clearly marked signals.

A similar suit filed against Metrolink was resolved through a confidential settlement agreement, Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrell said. The most recent case shows the importance of adhering to traffic rules near Metrolink tracks, she added.

"This settlement reminds us that crash avoidance is key," she said. "The jury has agreed the crash was caused by an individual driving onto the tracks. Our main goal as an agency is to keep people from violating the law around railroad tracks to keep our passengers safe so that we can continue to provide a safe and secure service for the community."

Since Metrolink trains started running in 1975, the Federal Railroad Administration's Office of Safety Analysis has recorded more than 35 crashes between cars and trains in Glendale and Burbank. On Jan. 6, Glendale resident Maureen Osborn died at the same at-grade crossing when a southbound train collided with her Toyota sedan.

The worst accident in Metrolink history occurred in January last year in Glendale when a train struck a Jeep Cherokee stopped in the middle of the tracks on Chevy Chase Drive. The train jumped the track, killing 11 people and injuring more than 200.

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