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January 27, 2005

Civil, Criminal Cases Likely Will Follow Crash

By Leslie Simmons
and Blair Clarkson
Daily Journal Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES – The deadly Metrolink derailment caused by a suicidal man early Wednesday that killed 10 commuters likely will spawn criminal as well as civil litigation, with clashing goals, legal experts said.

Criminal-defense experts speculated that the lawyer for the man accused of causing the crash, Juan Manuel Alvarez, will fight to get a second-degree murder or manslaughter conviction and probably will raise Alvarez’s state of mind as a defense.

But for civil attorneys, representing victims and the families of the deceased, the goal will be to prove negligence, not only by Alvarez but also by Metrolink, which operates the commuter trains, and by the city of Glendale and county of Los Angeles.

“The state of mind of the suspect is a central issue: what led him to do whatever criminal acts he did do that resulted in the [injuries] to the innocent people,” District Attorney Steve Cooley told reporters at the scene Wednesday. “That’s the key issue that must be resolved.”

Early Wednesday morning, Alvarez parked his Jeep Grand Cherokee on the railroad tracks in Atwater Village with the intention of killing himself, Glendale Police Chief Randy Adams told reporters at the scene.

Instead, Alvarez, of Compton, jumped from his sport utility vehicle before a Metrolink commuter train heading south toward downtown’s Union Station crashed into the vehicle, causing the nation’s deadliest rail accident in six years.

Ten people were killed, including sheriff’s Deputy James Tutino, a 23-year veteran who worked in the Men’s Central Jail with gang inmates.

“This whole incident was started by a deranged individual that was suicidal,” Adams said. “I think his intent at that time was to take his own life, but [he] changed his mind prior to the train actually striking the vehicle.”

Alvarez was booked on first-degree murder charges and was being held at the jail ward at County-USC Hospital, according to the sheriff’s inmate information Web site. Cooley said he will decide Friday whether to charge Alvarez.

Defense experts said prosecutors would have to prove that Alvarez intended to kill others while carrying out his suicide plot.

“He would have had to premeditate and deliberately want to kill the people on the train and had the desire to kill … to be convicted of first-degree [murder],” said Santa Monica defense attorney Charles Lindner. “Somebody who is suicidal doesn’t think about the consequences of other people.”

Alvarez’s mental state most likely will be a focal point of his defense, said Los Angeles defense attorney Steffeny Holtz.

“I would get the psychiatrist to see him immediately and conduct an evaluation to see what he was thinking and to see if he was planning suicide and at what point did he change his mind,” Holtz said. “Was he medicated? Suffering depression? I would try to fight off the idea that it was willful or reckless disregard.”

“Some would argue that leaving a car in the path of a train would be an act, not just to kill himself, but to kill other people,” she added.

But the fact that he changed his mind and left his car, watching the crash from the side of the tracks, may hurt his case.

“He had displayed some will to live, and he recognized that, if he stayed in the car, he’d die,” Los Angeles defense lawyer Robert Schwartz said. “If it was a psychotic breakdown, he did have enough presence in mind to be able to save his life. If a jury is ever faced with this case, they’re going to make that calculation.”

Civil litigation experts, meanwhile, anticipate a flood of civil lawsuits against the railway and perhaps the city.

“The sharks are hitting the water over the smell of blood,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Geraldine Weiss of the Law Office of Michael Piuze in Los Angeles. “This is a tragedy, … but that’s unfortunately the nature of the beast.”

But Brian Panish of Santa Monica’s Greene Broillet Panish & Wheeler said that, while there will “certainly” be civil suits filed, Alvarez’s intention may not matter in those cases.

“The issues will be how early the train saw the truck, whether it could have stopped in time and what steps the engineer could have taken to prevent it,” Panish said.

Panish, who represents several victims of the Santa Monica Farmers Market crash, added that the city could be on the hook for failing to install proper barricades to prevent vehicles from getting on the track in the first place.

“The intent of the driver isn’t really relevant,” he said.

Sam Spital, a former state deputy attorney general, said this type of accident could open a “Pandora’s box” of litigation.

“With death involved, people are going to start looking for liability,” Spital said. “And rightly so. In any train accident, there’s a question of liability on the part of the train company or engineer about whether it could have been prevented.”

Other possible theories advanced by civil experts include the city’s maintenance of the crossing and the safety and repair standards used to regulate the trains and the tracks.

And if Metrolink comes under fire from civil suits, most would not be surprised to see the railway defend itself by pinning negligence on the engineer.

Metrolink officials have not released any details on the conditions of the train operators or the track. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the incident.

One potential stumbling block for plaintiffs’ lawyers looking to assign liability to the city could be governmental immunity. Under state law, cities are generally immune from suits claiming that traffic signals or markings were inadequate.

However, as in the Farmers Market litigation, attorneys likely will attempt to show that the city had created or enhanced the dangerous condition and had been on notice that such a calamity could occur.

“They can’t say it’s not foreseeable that this could happen,” said Dee Yarnall of Los Angeles’ Mardirossian & Associates. “This isn’t the first time this has happened. It seems people drive onto train tracks a couple times every year. It’s such a foreseeable crime that it doesn’t break the chain of liability.”

Yarnall added she wouldn’t be shocked to see product-liability and design-safety claims filed against the train manufacturer or the MTA.

“What occurs to me each time there is one of these wrecks is, How is it that these trains derail so easily? Are there alternative train designs? It seems to me that this kind of thing could be prevented,” she said.

A specific safety issue expected to be brought up is the fact that the engine car was located in the back of the Metrolink train, pushing the passenger cars ahead of it. Locomotive engines placed at the front of trains generally have reinforced plows to ward off or lessen the damage caused by objects on the track.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.