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A Louisiana appeals court has upheld an $850 million punitive damage award to more than 8,000 New Orleans residents who lived near a 1987 railroad tank car fire. The recent unanimous ruling by a three-judge 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel was the latest in a complex series of court actions involving the accident and the owner of the track, CSX Transportation. A state District Court jury found in 1997 that CSX and eight other companies were negligent in the rail fire. CSX was ordered to pay more than $2 billion in punitive damages for negligence, which was later cut to $850 million. But CSX appealed that award saying the injury to most residents was not significant and the amount was excessive. The appellate court said evidence could have led a jury to conclude that CSX’s inspection policy on tank cars showed “wanton or reckless disregard for public safety.” Harry Hardin III of New Orleans’ Jones, Walker, Waechter, Poitevent, Carr� & Den�, an attorney for CSX, said the new ruling was inconsistent with the facts of the case and the company will appeal the decision to the Louisiana Supreme Court. An attorney for the plaintiffs, Joseph M. Bruno of New Orleans’ Bruno & Bruno, said “big business was saying (the accident) was a nothing incident. Now we have two courts saying it was an important event.” In the fire, a tank car filled with the hazardous chemical butadiene burned for 37 hours in the Gentilly section of New Orleans. Many residents complained of burning eyes and other physical problems and some 1,000 residents were forced to flee. The punitive damages were assessed against the company during a small window when Louisiana law, since repealed, allowed such damages for “wanton or reckless disregard for public safety,” said Bruno. He added that CSX had mounted a public relations campaign that painted the plaintiffs’ claims as “the Great Train Robbery.” Hardin said he was “shocked and very disappointed” by the ruling. In re New Orleans Tank Car Leakage Litigation, No. 2000CA0479 (La. 4th Cir. App.).

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