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Monday, June 24, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

D.C. Metro Blamed for Subway Smoke Mishap

WASHINGTON (CN) - Scores of subway riders whose train was engulfed by smoke outside a Washington D.C. metro station last year claim in court that lapses by the transit authority placed their lives at risk and left them to deal with unknown health consequences.

In a series of lawsuits filed in the District of Columbia Superior Court, 93 subway riders claim the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority did not properly inspect the electrical connections to the third rail that powers the cars, and did not maintain the required signal boosters in the system's tunnels, delaying emergency personnel from reaching the trapped passengers.

As a result, the plaintiffs say, some improperly constructed parts of the rail went unnoticed, allowing electrical current to jump from its power cable to the train tunnel's steel wall, spewing thick smoke into the train's path.

One person died in the incident, according to the complaints, which were filed on Jan. 12.

Most of the plaintiffs in the 93 cases were riding in two cars of a subway train that had just left L 'Enfant Plaza Metro station, a major hub for Washington's subway system, when it ran into "dense" smoke in the train tunnel. The train stopped as its cars filled with smoke, the complaints say.

But the passengers' nightmare didn't end there. It took roughly 45 minutes after the time the train stopped in thick smoke before its doors opened and passengers were allowed to evacuate.

The plaintiffs contend this occurred because a poor signal availability in the tunnel prevented first responders from confirming with the transit authority the third rail was not running a current.

That left the passengers breathing smoke, the contents of which they don't know to this day, according to Kim Brooks-Rodney, an attorney with Washington law firm Cohen & Cohen, who represents the Metro riders.

Brooks-Rodney said her firm obtained consent from 93 of 103 potential plaintiffs in these cases, a mixture of people who were on the train and people waiting on the platform. She expects the remaining 10 riders to sign on soon.

The cases are likely to be grouped together, but do not qualify for a class action, Brooks-Rodney said.

"They have a wealth of different concerns," Brooks-Rodney said. "For example, we have one client who was in the first trimester of pregnancy, so she had a great deal of angst and concern until the child was delivered."

She expects the transit authority, a "quasi-federal" organization to move the cases into federal court, where one judge will consolidate them and set a master discovery schedule.

Brooks-Rodney said her team made settlement overtures to the transit authority, but Metro's response fell short of expectations.

"It was obvious Metro does not evaluate these cases the way we evaluate them because the offers were quite minimal," Brooks-Rodney said. The transit authority declined comment on the pending cases, citing organizational policy.

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