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Philadelphia Jury Awards $24.2 Million to Boys Injured on Amtrak Tracks

Posted on Oct 28, 2006

Jury Awards $24.2 Million to Boys Injured on Amtrak Tracks PHILADELPHIA, Oct. 27 /PRNewswire/ -- A Philadelphia federal jury in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania yesterday awarded total damages of $24.2 million against Amtrak and Norfolk Southern for electrical burn injuries suffered on August 10, 2002 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania by two 17-year-old boys, Jeffrey Klein and Brett Birdwell. The boys lived in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, but were visiting Klein's mother in Lancaster. They went skateboarding in the neighborhood, and at about 10:00 p.m. came to the parking lot of a former convenience store, at an intersection in a mixed residential/commercial area in Lancaster City. About fifty feet behind the parking lot was a side track of Amtrak, where Norfolk Southern had parked a 29-car train the day before. Amtrak leased the track to Norfolk Southern to park trains there when Norfolk Southern's train yard was full. The evidence showed that the boys saw the train parked behind the store, that one of the cars had ladders on each corner and a catwalk around the top, and that the boys decided to climb up and see what the view was of the city. There were no drugs, alcohol or vandalism involved. Unknown to the boys was the presence of a fully energized, 12,000 volt catenary electrical wire just six feet above the boxcars. There were no signs of any kind warning of high voltage or electricity, nor even a readily visible "No Trespassing" sign on Amtrak's right of way. Within minutes of the boys' reaching the top of one of the boxcars, an arc of electricity struck Jeffrey Klein, inflicting second and third degree burns over 75% of his body. Brett Birdwell, who was walking behind Klein on the catwalk, went to Klein's rescue, pulling Klein's burning clothes off him, and received second degree burns over 12% of his body. Klein spent 75 days in Temple University's Burn Care Unit, underwent twelve surgeries, and has permanent, severe scars over his burn and donor sites, as well as permanent disability from injuries to his left hand and back. Birdwell spent twelve days at Crozier Chester Medical Center's Burn Unit, and a year recovering. He is now in the armed forces in Afghanistan. Klein and Birdwell sued Amtrak and Norfolk Southern for unnecessarily creating a highly dangerous risk to the public, especially teenage boys. After an eleven-day trial, the jury found Amtrak 70% responsible for the boys' injuries and Norfolk Southern 30% responsible. At trial, the boys' attorney, Joseph F. Roda, of RodaNast, P.C., Lancaster, argued that the catenary wire should not have been left energized while the train was parked under it. The train was pulled onto the tracks with a diesel, and no other train could use the tracks, or need the power from the catenary, while the 29-car train was parked there. Plaintiffs introduced evidence that both Amtrak and Norfolk Southern know that the dangers of catenary lines are not generally known or obvious to the public, and that both companies, and railroad companies generally, have long required all employees who work in electrified territory to take annual training and tests on the dangers of catenary wires. The training warns them that the catenary lines have dangerous high voltage, that the voltage in the catenary lines is strong enough to "arc" into someone without the person's touching the wire, and that a person should never get onto the top of a boxcar parked under such a line unless the line has been de-energized and grounded. Evidence was also introduced that the Federal Railroad Administration, in a report to Congress in 1971, warned that the general public was not aware of the dangers of catenary wires, that juveniles in particular were at risk of danger from them, and that the railroad industry should adopt the use of signs (such as with lightning bolts and stickmen) alerting the public to catenary wire dangers. Plaintiffs also showed the jury internal Amtrak memoranda, as well as testimony from Amtrak officers in federal court in the mid-1980s, that showed Amtrak's awareness of the risk to the public from the combination of parked trains under live catenary wires in urban areas. The jury awarded Klein $340,000 for past medical bills; $197,000 for estimated future medical bills; $1.6 million for future lost earning capacity; $9 million for pain and suffering, scarring, humiliation, and loss of life's pleasures; and punitive damages of $4.375 million against Amtrak and $1.375 million against Norfolk Southern. The jury awarded Birdwell $288,000 for past medical bills; $300,000 for pain and suffering; and the same amounts as Klein in punitive damages against Amtrak ($4.375 million) and Norfolk Southern ($1.375 million). The trial was conducted before the Honorable Lawrence F. Stengel of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The jury consisted of eight persons chosen from the nine southeastern counties in Pennsylvania. Amtrak and Norfolk Southern were represented by Paul F. Gallagher, of Gallagher and Rowan in Philadelphia.

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