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Widow of truck driver killed in Amtrak collision files wrongful death lawsuit over "ultra-hazardous" crossing

Death toll rises in Missouri Amtrak derailment
Death toll rises in Missouri Amtrak derailment 00:19

The widow of a man killed when the truck he was driving was hit by an Amtrak train this week has filed a wrongful death lawsuit. In the suit, Erin Barton alleges that the Missouri railroad crossing where Billy Dean Barton II died was "ultra-hazardous," due in part to the defendants' failures to maintain the intersection.

The first of two defendants is Mariano Rodriguez, a manager in the BNSF Railway's engineering department. Rodriguez is in charge of ensuring "the safety, proper inspection and maintenance" of railroad crossings like the one near Mendon, the suit says. 

But the widow alleges that he failed to do so, citing the crossing's "impaired 'sight triangles,'" an "excessively small crossing angle," and other impairments, including "sloped approaches, brush, trees and vegetation blocking a full view of oncoming trains in some quadrants." She said "the surfaces of the crossing were narrow, rough and poorly maintained."

A photo of the derailed Amtrak train in Missouri.  Ron Goulet

Additionally, the crossing did not have "bells, gates or lights" to warn vehicles of an approaching train — it only had crossbucks or signs saying that the tracks were nearby, the suit says.

"These conditions at the crossing created an ultra-hazardous crossing," the suit says, adding that the conditions had been like that for years.

The suit cited the fact that it takes trains a significant amount of time — perhaps up to a mile — to stop fully. "This fact makes properly guarded, inspected and maintained crossing critical for safety," it says.

Given these alleged safety concerns, Rodriguez "knew or should have known that the Porche crossing posed a grave danger to the public," the suit said. 

On June 27, these failures culminated in the fatal collision and derailment, the lawsuit alleges. Erin Barton's husband was driving a dump truck through the crossing and "did not see or hear the train coming with adequate warning to safely cross the tracks."

The crash killed him and three others on the train, which was carrying nearly 300 people from Los Angeles to Chicago. Many others were injured in the incident. 

At least 3 killed in Amtrak train derailment 02:31

Erin Barton is seeking $25,000 and prejudgment interest for costs incurred from filing the lawsuit.

She is also suing Chariton County, Missouri, where the crash took place, for the same compensation. The lawsuit alleges that the county failed its duty to properly design, inspect and maintain its roads, including the approaches to the crossing. It says the county violated several roadway standards as well.

Prior to the crash, residents had reported to the county's road authority several issues at the crossing, the suit said. Therefore, the suit alleges, the county was aware of the problems, and its negligence "caused or directly contributed" to Barton's death.

This is the first reported lawsuit filed as a result of the crash. More than 10 victims in the derailment, including the family of a man who died, have retained lawyers "to represent their interests," a separate law firm said in a statement to CBS News.

Sixteen National Transportation Safety Board investigators were on scene to try and determine the cause of the crash, chair Jennifer Homendy said Wednesday. They will download the train's event recorder, and will examine the train's two forward facing cameras as well as the dump truck's electronic control module.

She said the NTSB has been recommending "for a number of years" that passive crossings, like the one near Mendon, be either converted to active ones, closed or consolidated. She also pointed out a 1998 NTSB study which recommended that vehicles have technology that would alert drivers to trains in the area.

Amtrak said Monday night that it was "deeply saddened" to learn of the deaths, adding that it's cooperating with local authorities. 

On Thursday, Amtrak and the BNSF Railway company, which owns the track on which the collision happened, sued Barton's employer and the owner of the dump truck, MS Contracting, alleging it was responsible for the crash and accusing the company of negligence. 

The lawsuit claims Barton "failed to yield the right of way to the approaching Amtrak Southwest Chief Train 4," resulting in the collision. It deemed his actions "unsafe, careless and reckless." It blamed the company for "negligently, carelessly, and recklessly" failing to adequately train Barton and maintain the truck. 

The crash injured and killed Amtrak employees and passengers, significantly damaged property owned by the two companies, and resulted in delays and service disruption, according to the suit. 

Amtrak and BNSF reported more than $75,000 in damages from the crash, and they are each seeking a payment of more than $75,000 in the lawsuit.

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