Metro’s accident on Monday which injured dozens of persons and took the life of Alexandria, VA resident Carol Inman Glover, a mother, grandmother and named 2014 Employee of the Year by her communications firm, may soon be a court battle that could cost Metro millions of dollars for its lack of safety precautions. Metro could be held accountable for the actual fire occurring on the track, if it was avoidable and due to their negligence. Metro, exclusively, is responsible for maintenance and upkeep on the tracks. And every weekend, they perform track maintenance. And Metro’s further legal potential negligence surrounds the enormous length of time, it took for fire crew and first responders to arrive on the tracks to assist passengers.
Some Metro riders who took recordings with their cell phones are able to verify the alleged 45 minutes to over 1 hour. Imagine if a fire truck took that long in responding to a fire. Or if EMT personnel took 45 minutes to respond to a 911 call for distress due to an accident. While there may be issues in responders arriving on the tracks, it appears that the length of time for the first response was far beyond anything that could be possibly construed as reasonable by any reasonable standards.
The train by news accounts was only 800 yards from the L’Enfant Plaza station platform when the fire was noticed. It was not very deep in the tunnel. Some accounts say there was an issue with getting all of the first responders in communication with each other. And since this is not the first accident involving Metro, one would think there would have been track safety precautions and procedures in place for getting to passengers in a more timely and perhaps life -saving time. It is tragic anytime someone dies in what may be perceived due to a negligent manner. It is even more tragic when it occurs on a rail system that should have resolved accident safety, evacuation procedures and communication issues due to past issues. The first Metro accident resulting in death occurred 33 years ago.
I heard some news accounts state that passengers should be aware of their surroundings while on the Metro train and look for the evacuation signs and procedures on the train. Following the accident, on Tuesday, I rode on Metro and read the emergency instructions that are posted in the train cars. First, it does give instructions on what to do if one has to evacuate a train and how to accomplish it. But first and foremost, the instructions say to follow the instructions of the Metro operator. In Monday’s accident, the train operator told passengers it was not a fire inside the train and to remain in the train. So the passengers followed the appropriate safety instructions that were given to them. In fact, if an unauthorized evacuation occurred before the electric third rail was deactivated, passengers could have been electrocuted if they evacuated the train, against the safety orders of the train operator. So, there is no “contributory negligence” on the part of any of the passengers. They did exactly what they were told to do.
Now for the possible negligence of WMATA. WMATA may be found negligent for the accident on several theories. First, negligence may occur if Metro knew or should have reasonably known of the potential for a fire accident occurring in this manner and failed to provide and take reasonable safety measures and precautions. Again, it is too soon to know if the actual fire was the result of any negligence on the part of Metro. The National Transportation Safety Board will be investigating the cause of the accident. Negligence may result from the delay in responding. It took 45 minutes to over an hour for Metro to get its act together to assist first responders to the tracks must have seemed like an eternity for all those aboard the train. Some passengers spoke about fearing they would die in a dark Metro train filled with smoke and the inability to breathe easily. Unfortunately Ms. Glover did die.
A cause of action is possible for every one of the Metro passengers who experienced emotional, physical injury or both. It’s difficult to imagine that all passengers were not affected emotionally and somewhat physically by the events. At least 86 passengers were treated at the hospital following the accident. This number does not include ones who may have gone the next day or later to the hospital the same day on their own with episodes of breathing or emotional issues, such as panic attacks or anxiety.
It will take months before the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) concludes its investigation and makes its findings. That will not stop the onslaught of personal injury law suits likely to occur. Each potential litigant has by law 6 months from the date of the accident to file a claim against WMATA. This informal claim is not the same as filing a lawsuit in court where there is a three year statute of limitations in which to file. While many issues evolve around Metro, there are still unanswered questions about whether first responders bear any responsibility for the delayed response.
More to follow as the NTSB investigation continues.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor. She frequently appears as a legal analyst on Arise TV, Al Jazeera America, BET, Fox 5 News, Sky News, RT America and TV One, among others.