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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Train Derailment Claims Kept in Federal Court

(CN) - Residents evacuated from their homes after a derailed train released toxic chemicals into the air cannot pursue claims in state court, a federal judge ruled.

In November 2012, a train owned by Consolidated Rail Corp. derailed while crossing a bridge over Mantua Creek in Paulsboro, N.J. The bridge, also owned by the rail company, collapsed.

One car on the derailed train was a tanker containing 25,000 gallons of vinyl chloride, a toxic chemical used to make plastic PVC, some of which was released in the accident, the Huffington Post reported.

The spill forced 700 people to evacuate the vicinity, and the entire population of Paulsboro was ordered to "shelter in place."

John Stephenson and Tracy Lee later sued Consolidated Rail on behalf of all evacuees and every person who lost less than $75,000 in income as a result of the spill. The rail company removed the case to federal court based on the Class Action Fairness Act's jurisdictional threshold of $5 million.

U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler affirmed Consolidated Rail's calculations on Tuesday, and denied the plaintiffs' motion to remand.

Consolidated Rail calculated the class claims of business income loss at $370,000, residents' income loss at $492,000, and quantified discomfort and annoyance at $1 million. Based on these figures, a punitive damages award would be about $3.8 million, and attorneys' fees would come to about $1.7 million, it argued.

Based on these calculations, the plaintiffs' total award would come to $7.5 million.

"Although plaintiffs argue that defendants' figures, though accurate, are predicated on speculation and assumptions, this argument misconceives the nature of 'legal certainty,'" Kugler wrote. "Defendants need not demonstrate to absolute certainty that plaintiffs will recover more than $5 million. Instead, defendants must establish to a legal certainty that plaintiffs can recover the jurisdictional minimum. Defendants have satisfied this burden." (Italics in original.)

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