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Train-Derailment Case Kept in Federal Court

(CN) - A federal judge maintained jurisdiction over claims related to a freight train that dumped 25,000 gallons of vinyl chloride into a New Jersey creek after a bridge collapse.

The failure of the East Jefferson Street railroad bridge in Paulsboro, N.J. sent a freight train off the tracks and into Mantua Creek below on the morning of Nov. 30, 2012.

Soon 25,000 gallons of vinyl chloride, which locals call a "potent human carcinogen," flooded the air and water from one of the four partially submerged railcars.

About 600 individuals were evacuated from the area for about a week, while the borough told those living outside the danger zone to remain indoors until the spill was cleaned up.

Residents and local businesses later sued Consolidated Rail, Norfolk Southern Railway and CSX Transportation for their allegedly negligent operation of the train or maintenance of the bridge.

In the absence of rail traffic, the bridge was supposed to swing open to let water flow along the creek, but it allegedly failed to lock back into place for the train to cross on Nov. 30.

Residents say the train tried to cross the bridge and fell into the water below despite a red signal that warned the rails were not properly positioned that day.

The defendants had also allegedly been warned of bridge-operation problems shortly before the derailment but failed to correct them.

Some residents say that the evacuation or other orders caused them to incur expenses or lose income, and that they have suffered mental or physical harm including coughing fits.

U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler in Camden, N.J., dismissed the strict-liability claims and request for attorneys' fees of the plaintiffs claiming mental harm, as well as claims for res ipsa loquitor, trespass and strict liability from the plaintiffs claiming economic harm on Oct. 4.

Though the judge remanded to state court an action filed by David Belbin in January, he refused last week to remand another case led by Tonya Kidd.

Norfolk Southern, CSX and Kristen Santaromita, a plaintiff who was added in the February 2013 amended complaint, are citizens of Virginia, but the New Jersey federal court retains jurisdiction, the court found.

"Evidently, [Santaromita] owns real property in Paulsboro and resides in Virginia," Kugler wrote. "She was physically located in Virginia during the time period when the chemical spill occurred and over the following days. Her role in this lawsuit is as one of many plaintiffs who allege either bodily injury or property damage as a result of the chemical spill. There is no reason why the other parties could not be afforded complete relief in Santaromita's absence."

Santaromita would not be harmed were she not joined, the unpublished ruling states.

"Clearly, Santaromita could pursue her claims in state court, and her rights would not be precluded by any outcome in this case," Kugler wrote. "Plaintiffs do not explain why Santaromita is any more 'necessary' to this action than all of the other plaintiffs in the other cases filed in this district, or those filed in state court related to the same derailment."

Kugler rejected as "vague" allegations that Santaromita's claims are "inextricably linked" to those of her nonparty family members, none of whom are listed in the amended complaint as co-owners of her property.

There is also no basis to conclude that the suit did not commence until after Santaromita joined, Kugler said.

"The plain meaning of commencement is the time when this action was filed by plaintiffs in state court," the opinion states. "The court thus sees no need to discuss in further detail the meritless notion that a suit commences when a responsive pleading is filed."

As the amended complaint does not allege the citizenship of any of the parties, the plaintiffs have 14 days to file a second amended complaint including that information.

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