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7 passengers injured in Amtrak train crash that killed 3 sue train companies

By Aya Elamroussi and Jenn Selva, CNN

Seven people injured when an Amtrak train derailed last month in rural Montana have filed federal lawsuits against Amtrak and BNSF Railway, alleging the companies were negligent in their duty to care for the passengers.

The derailment on September 25 near Joplin, Montana, left three people dead; at least seven others were hospitalized.

The Amtrak Empire Builder train 7/27 was headed westbound from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest when it derailed, according to Amtrak. BNSF Railway is responsible for maintaining the track where the incident occurred.

The accident claimed the lives of Don Varnadoe, 74, and his wife 72-year-old Margie as well as Zach Schneider, a 28-year-old senior software engineer who was traveling with his wife, Rebecca, to visit Portland.

The lawsuits, filed this week in U.S. District Court in Chicago, accuse Amtrak of being at “fault and (violating) the highest duty of care,” adding that it had “a duty to safely operate, inspect, maintain, and repair the railcars and engines that comprised … the train.”

“We believe that Amtrak and BNSF are ultimately responsible for getting their passengers from point A to point B safely,” the passengers’ attorney Sean Driscoll told CNN. “We are going to be looking at any cause such as maintenance, condition of the cars, and human error.”

CNN has reached out to Amtrak and BNSF for comment on the lawsuits but did not immediately hear back.

The lawsuits were filed on behalf of a Massachusetts couple, a Pennsylvania couple, an Indiana couple and a Montana man who say they were all injured. They are claiming monetary as well as punitive and emotional distress damages, according to the lawsuits.

“Plaintiffs have suffered serious physical and emotional injuries, requiring past and future medical care, disability, loss of enjoyment of life, pain, anxiety, distress and emotional trauma,” the lawsuits say.

The lawsuits by the passengers follow one last week by Rebecca Schneider, whose husband was killed. She sued both companies for wrongful death and negligence.

At that time, BNSF told CNN that it doesn’t discuss ongoing litigation. The company runs 400 railroad lines in the US, according to its website.

And Amtrak said: “Amtrak is sorry for Mrs. Schneider’s and the Schneider family’s loss. We are offering assistance to injured passengers and employees and the families of those who have lost loved ones but are otherwise unable to comment on pending litigation.”

Around 141 passengers on board the train

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.

The agency’s vice chair, Bruce Landsberg, said last week that a team of 14 investigators and experts were sent to the crash scene to review the train’s front-facing video as well as video from the same vantage point on a freight train that passed through the area almost an hour and a half prior.

“We don’t know that this point whether it was a track issue or an issue with the train, so all of these things are open,” Landsberg said after the crash. “There’s a lot of ground to cover and there is significant damage so our experts are going to be really looking at that.”

The train consisted of two locomotives and 10 cars and there were about 141 passengers and 16 crew members on board, according to Amtrak.

Passenger Megan Vandervest was sleeping when the derailment awakened her.

“I would describe the experience as kind of extreme turbulence on an airplane but louder, and there was kind of a lot of smoke smell. The first thought I really had when I woke up was, ‘Oh my God we’re derailing,'” she told CNN.

“It was probably 10 or 15 seconds of rocking back and forth and tons of noise, and then we came to a stop. Really we didn’t know what was going on for a couple of minutes.”

Vandervest said she was evacuated within 10 minutes of the crash and was shocked to witness the extent of the damage that had occurred.

“We kind of thought maybe the car behind us had slightly come off or something like that, but it ended up being much, much worse and a lot more jarring to see when we got off the train,” she said. “The car behind ours was slightly off and then the one behind that was kind of in between two sets of railroad tracks, and the one behind that one had like completely tipped over and fallen over and that was kind of the most shocking part.”

Data shows the train was traveling between 75 and 78 miles per hour before it departed a right-curving section of track where the speed limit was 79 miles per hour, Landsberg said.

Investigators were working to interview the train’s crew as well as BNSF Railway track inspectors who conducted an inspection where the train left the tracks.

™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Deanna Hackney and Susannah Cullinane contributed to this report.

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