The wife of a conductor killed in the crash of an Amtrak train and a parked CSX freight train in South Carolina is suing Amtrak and the other rail company, saying they were to blame for the man’s death.
Howard A. Spier, a partner with Rossman, Baumberger. Reboso & Spier in Miami, filed suit Thursday on behalf of Michael Cella’s widow, Christine, and two children, Elena and Logan.
In the lawsuit, Christine Cella accuses Amtrak and Jacksonville-based CSX Corp. of negligence in the death of her husband. Michael Cella, 36, and Amtrak engineer Michael Kempf, 54, were killed early Sunday when their New York-to-Miami passenger train slammed into the CSX train stopped on a sidetrack. More than 100 passengers were injured.
CSX, which owns the freight train and operates the track on which both trains were traveling, was negligent in a number of areas, according to the two-count complaint filed in Duval Circuit Court. That includes failing to make sure a warning signal system was in place and locking a manual switch that forced the passenger train onto the side track where the empty freight train was parked.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board have said that, after offloading cargo at a nearby yard, the empty CSX train was moved to a side track with a train switch locked in place. When the Amtrak train came along, it diverted onto the siding, slamming into the CSX train.
Because of that negligence, according to the suit, Michael Cella “was forced to endure the horrendous fear of his pending demise as the Amtrak Train approached the deadly collision point,” his final moments marked by “great conscious pain and suffering.”
Christine Cella issued a statement asking news media to honor the family’s privacy. She added: “One never completely heals from this kind of loss, but we look forward to joining others as passionate advocates in holding railroads and our nation’s transportation system accountable for the safety of passengers, crews and communities.”
The suit also said CSX “deliberately disabled” warning signals along the pathway that would have warned oncoming trains about the diversion and also didn’t have a safety system installed that could have likely prevented the crash.
The system, called positive train control, uses sensors and GPS to prevent trains from colliding or derailing. Investigators have said that warning signals had been disabled in the area of the crash because that control system was in the process of being installed.
Congress mandated the use of positive train control in 2008, but its implementation has been delayed. Rail companies currently have until the end of this year to put it in place.
The lawsuit accuses Amtrak, Cella’s employer, of failing to ensure he had a safe working environment. Both Amtrak and CSX declined to comment on the suit, which seeks unspecified damages. One of the passengers injured in Sunday’s crash also has filed suit against CSX.
The complaint alleges 28 instances of negligence against CSX and nine against Amtrak.
Spier is a former president of the Academy of Rail Labor Attorneys and has represented civilians, passengers and crew members for more than three decades.
“This lawsuit comes at a time when the railroad industry faces a national crisis of confidence in its ability to keep passengers and crews safe,” he said. “Promoting and strengthening a culture of safety are critical in any discussion of America’s infrastructure.”