by Josephine Cordero Sapién
13 May 2017
The Amtrak engineer driving the train that crashed on 12 May 2015, killing 8, is charged with involuntary manslaughter.
On 12 May 2015 an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia. The Northeast Regional Train 188, en route between Washington D.C. and New York City, had 240 passengers and 5 crew members on board as it entered a corner with an 80km/h speed limit at 164km/h. 8 people were killed, 11 critically injured. Some passengers had to be rescued with cutting tools.
In response to the crash, the Federal Railroad Administration ordered Amtrak to alter its positive train control system to enforce the speed limit at Frankfort Junction, where the derailment took place. Investigating the crash, the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) said it believed human error was the most likely cause.
The engineer driving the train, Brandon Bostian, sustained a concussion in the crash and could therefore not remember much of the event. His lawyer Robert Goggin told ABC News however that
“He remembers coming into curve. He remembers attempting to reduce speed and thereafter he was knocked out.”
It is known that Brandon Bostian hit the emergency brakes moments before the train entered the curve, reducing the train’s speed to 164km/h before the black box stopped recording.
In its report, the NTSB said that engineer Brandon Bostian had become distracted:
“He lost his situational awareness because his attention was diverted to an emergency situation with a nearby SEPTA train that had made an emergency stop after being struck by a projectile.”
It also noted that the crash could have been avoided had Positive Train Control been implemented at the location at the time. The NTSB found that this lack of PTC was consequently a ‘contributing factor’. (PTC has now been implemented there.) However, the NTSB report concluded that the probable cause of the crash was the engineer’s acceleration due to his loss of situational awareness.
On Friday, 12 May 2017, exactly two years after the crash and on the final day before the statute of limitations expired, Brandon Bostian was charged with involuntary manslaughter, the New York Times reports.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office issued a statement last Tuesday in which it said it had concluded the Amtrak investigation and would not press charges, finding that:
“The evidence indicates that the derailment was caused by the engineer operating the train far in excess of the speed limit.
However, we cannot conclude that the evidence rises to the high level necessary to charge the engineer or anyone else with a criminal offense. We have no evidence that the engineer acted with criminal “intent” or criminal “knowledge” within the special meaning of those terms under Pennsylvania law for purposes of criminal charges. Nor do we believe there is sufficient evidence to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, criminal recklessness, which would be the only other basis for criminal liability.”
This decision came as a shock to survivors and victims’ families. The lawyer hired to bring the lawsuit, Richard A. Sprague, said:
“Can you imagine someone driving down Market Street at 100 miles per hour, hitting people, killing people, and the DA saying we don’t have a basis for prosecuting anybody?”
However, there is an obscure Pennsylvania law that allows individuals to file private criminal complaints in a municipal court requesting misdemeanour charges. Involuntary manslaughter is a misdemeanour in Pennsylvania. The NYT reports that:
“On Friday, Pennsylvania’s attorney general, Josh Shapiro, accepted the private complaint, expanded the misdemeanor charges to include all eight people who died and added a charge of causing or risking a catastrophe, which is a felony.”
The District Attorney’s Office had referred the case to the attorney general to avoid a conflict of interest, as it had already stated it would not press charges.
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