First Circuit Halts Wrongful Death Suit Brought by Families of Train Disaster – Courthouse News Service

First Circuit Halts Wrongful Death Suit Brought by Families of Train Disaster – Courthouse News Service


The 2013 train crash destroyed a large swath of a Canadian town and left 47 people dead.

Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, on July 6, 2013, after a train owned by a subsidiary of Canadian Pacific, derailed and caused a fatal oil spill. (Photo by a Sûreté du Québec helicopter via Courthouse News)

BOSTON (CN) — An appeal in a wrongful death and negligence case resulting from the Lac-Mégantic train explosion was not timely filed and must be dismissed, a unanimous First Circuit panel ruled Wednesday.

The original claims were brought forward by the families of the victims, but on Wednesday the First Circuit found their appeal was not filed in time and that the case must be dismissed.

The tangled and complex litigation stemmed from a horrific accident that took place on July 6, 2013 after a train carrying oil from North Dakota derailed en route to a refinery.

According to the Canadian government’s investigation into the crash, the train was carrying 7.7 million liters of crude oil when almost all of the train’s cars derailed, causing the oil to spill and an ensuing fire destroyed much of the downtown core of the town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec.

The derailment happened after a confluence of events, starting with the train’s engineer parking the train overnight and a fire breaking out within the locomotive.

After firefighters put out the flames, they shut down the train. However, the lack of power caused the train’s air compressor to no longer provide air to the vehicle’s air brake system.

This resulted in a leak that caused the train’s brakes to no longer be able to hold it in place, which caused the train to begin rolling downhill. The train reached a top speed of 65 mph before derailing near the center of Lac-Mégantic.

The resulting tragedy of the crash spawned lawsuits filed in many different jurisdictions, all of which were eventually transferred and centralized in the District of Maine.

Under a settlement agreement, the plaintiffs dropped their claims against all the defendants except Canadian Pacific Railway, who successfully moved to have the case dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

The plaintiffs had sought to add Canadian Pacific’s American subsidiaries as defendants to the lawsuit, but in the same ruling that dismissed the case, the district court denied the plaintiff’s motion to amend their lawsuit.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs alleged that Canadian Pacific covered up which of its subsidiaries was responsible for the incident and then used the procedural delay to get the case dismissed.

Twenty-eight days after that dismissal, the plaintiffs appealed and attempted to substitute Soo Line Railroad for Canadian Pacific as the correct defendant, and it was this appeal that the First Circuit found untimely.

The legal matter hinged on a procedural issue, namely if the case was related to a pending bankruptcy proceeding and thus governed by those rules. This distinction was of utmost importance because the bankruptcy rules have a shorter deadline to appeal.

Lawyers for the families argued in front of the court in March, but ultimately the court found that because the matter must be governed under bankruptcy rules, the appeal was not filed in time.

“This conclusion has a domino effect and, when put into context, determines the outcome of this appeal. Under Bankruptcy Rule 9023, the plaintiffs’ motion for reconsideration was late and, thus, did not stop the accrual of the appeal period,” wrote Reagan appointee Circuit Judge Bruce Selya, who authored the ruling. “In the absence of tolling, the plaintiffs’ ensuing notice of appeal was untimely and, therefore, their appeal must be dismissed for want of appellate jurisdiction.”

Lawyers for the families argued that the lower court had alluded to the civil rules during proceedings, however the First Circuit panel rejected that argument.

“Plaintiffs have not pointed to any occasion when the court below purposed to address the question of which set of rules applied to the matters before it. And while greater clarity on the part of district courts is always to be applauded, a lack of clarity on the district court’s part does not vitiate our obligation to determine which set of rules applies in this case,” the opinion stated.

The ruling went on to say that the plaintiffs should have been aware that the bankruptcy rules would “likely” apply to the claims.

Selya was joined by Circuit Judge Sandra Lynch, a Clinton appointee, and by Obama appointee Judge Gary Katzmann, who sits on the U.S. Court of International Trade and joined the panel by designation.

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