James Vucinovich and Coby Cohen, of the Seattle firm of Rossi Vucinovich, achieved a jury verdict in November on behalf of a young woman for injuries she sustained in the 2017 Amtrak Cascades crash. The disastrous train wreck received national attention and resulted in the death of three persons and injuries to 65. Among others injured in the wreck, Rossi Vucinovich represented Ms. Kylie Steele, a young woman who was in the midst of graduate studies at the time of the train wreck and who was on her way home for the holidays. Her case is Kylie Steele v. National Railroad Passenger Corporation, a/k/a Amtrak, and was heard in federal court in the Western District of Washington in Tacoma (case #3:19-cv-05553).
Facts of the 2017 Amtrak Derailment
On December 18, 2017, Amtrak Cascades passenger train 501 barreled off the tracks at 78 miles per hour on a 30 mile per hour curve near DuPont, Washington (located approximately 50 miles south of Seattle). The lead locomotive and the passenger cars ripped off the track and tore apart, some even landing on Interstate 5, others grinding to a stop on a bridge or hanging from it.
Ms. Steele was 24 at the time and poised to launch her professional and personal life. She had boundless energy and liked to hike, bike, run, kayak, snowboard, and enjoyed dancing and spending time with her friends out and about. She had run a marathon in 2016 and several half-marathons. Friends described Kylie as loud, boisterous, and expressive, and she had a magnetic personality. Kylie was in the midst of her studies to obtain a Masters’s in Urban and Environmental Education.
Kylie boarded the train that morning to head from her studies in Seattle to her parent’s house in Oregon to celebrate the holidays. She fell asleep in her seat and was jolted awake as the train derailed. Suddenly, Kylie’s body was thrown violently forward, launching the right side of her face into the hard plastic seatback in front of her. She did her best to stabilize herself as the car continued to shake and jolt about, amidst the cabin lights going out and screams from fellow passengers.
As a result of being thrown about and smashing her head in the train wreck, Kylie suffered a mild traumatic brain injury (“mTBI”). That injury derailed her once-promising life. Since the injury, Kylie has been plagued by nearly constant headaches – particularly with any activity – physical and mental exhaustion, balance issues, dizziness, and cognitive difficulties. Her activities are severely limited in time each day, and she can no longer pursue the career or activities, athletic and social, she so regularly enjoyed prior to the train wreck.
Complaint and Case History
Rossi Vucinovich filed a complaint against Amtrak on Ms. Steele’s behalf on June 18, 2019. The complaint alleged many failures of Amtrak that led to the train wreck and sought to hold Amtrak accountable for Ms. Steele’s traumatic brain injury and its repercussions. Prior to trial, and at least partly as a result of the significant proof obtained of wrongdoing in causing the train wreck, Amtrak admitted liability for injuries caused in the train wreck.
Amtrak continued to fight the extent to which Ms. Steele had been injured in the wreck, however. In response to that fight, Mr. Vucinovich involved a number of Ms. Steele’s treating medical providers and engaged experts to establish that Ms. Steele’s mTBI had been caused by the train wreck, moving for summary judgment on medical causation. The Court agreed, and granted summary judgment on that issue, finding that Ms. Steele had suffered an mTBI in the train wreck and leaving these significant questions for trial:
- The symptoms attributable to Ms. Steele’s TBI, along with their severity, permanence, and impacts on her work and activities; and
- The appropriate measure of damages for Ms. Steele for those losses, the impacts of her ability to work, and the care she would need as a result into the future.
The trial proceeded via Zoom in mid-November 2021. Mr. Vucinovich and Mr. Cohen presented witnesses from all walks of Ms. Steele’s life to discuss the impacts to her of this traumatic injury: Kylie herself, her family, friends, work supervisor, doctor, therapists, and experts on her vocational rehabilitation and life care need and economics of her losses. In all, they painted a compelling picture of Kylie’s harms and losses, detailing how the mTBI affected her and still affects her to this day, including lifelong impairments and limitations to her physical, cognitive, and emotional being, a loss of her career and of her ability to engage in the activities she so loved prior to the wreck, and her needs for significant medical treatment and care permanently into the future.
In contrast, Amtrak sought to downplay the extent and severity of Ms. Steele’s injuries, referring to Ms. Steele’s experience as little more than a bump on the head and challenging the testimony of each and every witness as to the extent of her injuries and her recovery from same. Amtrak also presented a “best of” video of surveillance of Ms. Steele over the years, culling over 118 hours of surveillance to just 12 minutes to be shown to the jury, much of which, Mr. Cohen was able to point out, showed Ms. Steele traveling to her volunteer job at a bakery for brain-injured persons. The defense highlighted moments where Kylie was smiling and acted as if those moments showed that everything was just fine for her. They insinuated in closing that Ms. Steele may not even be due a couple hundred thousand dollars in total.
The entire trial was completed in just over four and a half-court days, where the majority of actual testimony time was made up of Amtrak’s cross-examination. Using speed trial techniques, Plaintiff’s case was presented in approximately seven hours of direct testimony.
The jury deliberated for only about three hours, returning a verdict for Ms. Steele totaling $6.875 million in damages, including:
- $960,000 in past harms and losses other than wage damages,
- $2,000,000 in future harms and losses other than wage and medical damages,
- $215,000 in past wage losses, and
- $3,700,000 in future wage losses and life care expenses.
This is the sixth significant verdict against Amtrak as a result of the December 2017 train wreck. Mark Landman of Landman Corsi Ballaine & Ford (New York, NY) and Andrew Yates of Lane Powell tried the case on behalf of Amtrak.
James Kelly Vucinovich is an EAGLE member and President of Rossi Vucinovich PC, located in Seattle, Washington. The firm has a national practice and specializes in representing injured railroad workers, whistleblower complaints, toxic exposure, and medical malpractice. Mr. Vucinovich is a nationally recognized FELA lawyer and a current member and past president of the Academy of Rail Labor Attorneys.
C. N. Coby Cohen is a trial lawyer with Rossi Vucinovich PC, located in Seattle, Washington, which specializes in representing injured railroad workers, whistleblowers, persons with catastrophic personal injuries, and persons suffering medical malpractice injuries. Mr. Cohen has decades of litigation experience, including a significant number of railroad injury claims, and is also a current member of the Academy of Rail Labor Attorneys.