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Metro braces for crash lawsuits

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Metro officials are bracing for tens of millions of dollars in lawsuits likely to be filed against the cash-strapped transit system by those injured in Monday's crash and the families of the deceased.

Nobody yet knows who - if anyone - is at fault in the train wreck. But injury lawyers and Metro officials say the lawsuits against the agency are a sure thing.

"It is an accepted reality," said Metro Board Chairman Jim Graham. "As a lawyer, I understand how these things work. It is something we are going to see in the future."

The litigation likely will come not only from the more than 70 injured and the families of the nine dead in the train pileup, but also from many of the other passengers on the subway cars who were frightened or otherwise traumatized.

"It will quite easily be tens of millions of dollars," said Michael I. Krauss, a law professor specializing in torts at George Mason University School of Law.

That's a financial hit Metro can ill afford. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) has been struggling with a revenue shortfall projected earlier this year at $154 million. Officials had proposed slashing 900 jobs and reducing services to balance the $1.3 billion operating budget.

Metro officials were unable to immediately determine how much of any potential liability would be covered by insurance.

Mr. Graham said the transit system's finances or the potential legal bills are not of concern right now. He said they are focused on ensuring the "safety and security" of the Metro system.

He also said the threat of lawsuits also was not related to the agency's decision to set up a $250,000 relief fund for victims who need immediate assistance.

Still, Metro angled to pre-empt some lawsuits Tuesday by asking crash victims to make claims directly to WMATA's risk-management department, which will assess and manage the claims as an alternative to litigation, Metro officials said.

Andrew Bederman, a prominent local plaintiff's lawyer with offices in Silver Spring, said he anticipates many of his colleagues are out trying to round up clients among the crash victims.

"My suspicion is that given the severity of the disaster and the sheer number of the people who were injured ... that you are going to see a lot of this occurring," he said. "Knowing D.C. as I do, I know it is going to happen or is happening already."

He said he had already taken on two clients with less-severe injuries from the crash.

It is illegal in the District for lawyers to solicit clients by such means as tracking down accident victims or trolling emergency rooms. However, Mr. Bederman said lawyers can pay to have their firms prominently displayed on Google when keywords like "train" or "crash" are searched.

The agency has paid out big awards in the past when people were injured or killed by trains and buses.

Last year, Metro agreed to pay a $2.9 million to the family of Sally D. McGhee, 54, and $2.3 million to the family of Martha Schoenborn, 59, to settle lawsuits filed after the two women were run over and killed by a Metrobus.

The women, who worked together at the Federal Trade Commission, had just left work and had a "walk" signal as they crossed Pennsylvania Avenue but the Metrobus came around the corner and struck them.