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Widow sues Amtrak over husband’s death in Montana train derailment

National railroad safety regulators and federal officials are currently investigating the cause of the accident, which injured dozens and killed at least three, including the plaintiff’s husband.

CHICAGO (CN) — The widow of a man that was killed in an Amtrak train derailment in Montana over the weekend sued the federally subsidized passenger train corporation and another railroad company on Tuesday, seeking unspecified damages for their alleged role in her husband’s death.

The two-locomotive Amtrak Empire Builder train derailed near the small town of Joplin, Montana, at a switch point on Saturday while on its usual westward route from Chicago to Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon. Dozens were reportedly injured and three were killed out of around 141 passengers and 14 crew members aboard the train.

Among those killed were Zach Schneider, 28, who was in the viewing car at the time of the derailment, according to a complaint filed in a Chicago federal court by his wife, Rebecca Schneider, who sustained severe injuries when the sleeper car she was in flipped on its side during the accident.

Named as defendants in the widow’s lawsuit are Amtrak and BNSF Railway Co., the North American railroad giant that owns, operates and maintains the tracks the Empire Builder was traveling on when it derailed.

Schneider is represented in her individual capacity and as personal representative of her late husband's estate by Adam Levitt from the Chicago office of nationwide firm DiCello, Levitt & Gutzler and attorneys from the Philadelphia office of personal injury firm Saltz, Mongeluzzi & Bendesky. Her filing brings claims for negligence, infliction of emotional distress, wrongful death and survival action against the two rail transportation companies.

Schneider and her husband boarded the Empire Builder in Chicago on Sept. 24 for what was supposed to be a two-day trip to Portland. The train derailed at BNSF’s East Buelow switch point near Joplin the next day at around 4:00 p.m. A BNSF freight train passed the switch point about 80 minutes earlier without incident, and the area had been inspected by BNSF personnel as recently as two days before the accident, according to the complaint.

The filing alleges that the air temperature and the temperature of the rail should not have been in the range where the tracks were at risk of buckling or otherwise being damaged when the accident occurred and derailed eight of the train’s 10 passenger cars.

Schneider escaped the train’s sleeper car — which was completely decoupled from the rest of the train and thrown from the tracks — when a crew member used a sledgehammer to smash open the window and door of the car, the complaint states. She could not find her husband when she searched for him and called his name near the viewing car before learning six hours later at the hospital that he had died.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Railroad Administration are currently probing the derailment in Montana with assistance from officials with Amtrak and BNSF. Representatives with the NTSB and FRA could not immediately be reached Tuesday evening for updates on the investigation.

Schneider’s 35-page complaint posits that the derailment was caused by poor maintenance and improper inspections of tracks and switches, reckless operation of the train and/or malfunctioning train control systems operated by BNSF and Amtrak.

The filing offers that “this tragedy occurred due to the systematic failures of Amtrak to have an adequate culture in place to ensure safety on its railways,” pointing to five similar Amtrak accidents since 2015 that killed more than a dozen people and injured scores. The same portion of track in Montana where Saturday’s derailment occurred was the site of a previous derailment caused by track buckling in 1988, according to the complaint.

“Tragically, Amtrak has failed to learn from these prior deadly accidents and has continuously failed to ensure that its trains are operated safely and continues to put passengers at risk of catastrophic injury and death each time they board an Amtrak train,” the complaint states.

“Amtrak is sorry for Mrs. Schneider’s and the Schneider family’s loss,” a public relations manager with Amtrak said via email on Tuesday. “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.”

A spokesperson with BNSF declined to comment on the lawsuit.

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