Brandon Bostian, the engineer involved in the fatal derailment of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia in 2015, could still face charges related to the accident. Despite a municipal court judge dismissing the charges in September, Pennsylvania’s attorney general has announced he will continue to seek charges by appealing the judge’s decision. This means Bostian could still face jail time for his role in the tragedy.
Philadelphia Train Derailment Resulted in Eight Deaths
Amtrak Train 188 crashed while traveling from Washington to New York along the Frankford Curve in the Port Richmond area of Philadelphia on May 12, 2015. Eight people died, and more than 200 were injured when the train took the curve at 106 miles per hour, more than double the speed limit on that section of the track.
An investigation found that Bostian had not used alcohol or drugs before the crash and was not on his cell phone. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded Bostian “lost situational awareness” because of concerns about a rock hitting a different train near the same section of track where the derailment occurred.
Amtrak 188 Engineer Initially Did Not Face Charges
Following the NTSB’s lengthy investigation, Philadelphia’s district attorney said it would not file charges against Bostian, based on the evidence it reviewed. City prosecutors said they did not have any proof that Bostian acted with any intent or criminal knowledge. To file charges, prosecutors said, they would have to prove that Bostian purposely disregarded the risks of driving at such a high speed.
The family of Rachel Jacobs, however, filed a complaint against Bostian and sought a judge’s order requiring Bostian be charged for the derailment. The attorney general then became involved in the case and filed eight counts of involuntary manslaughter and 238 counts of reckless endangerment against Bostian.
Judge Dismisses Charges and Prompts Attorney General to File Amtrak Train Derailment Appeal
In September 2017, Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Thomas Gehret ruled that the derailment was an accident and not a crime, and dismissed the charges against Bostian. The Attorney General’s Office, however, has decided to appeal the decision. Attorney General Josh Shapiro filed a notice of appeal with the Common Pleas Court shortly before the deadline to do so.
“The Office of Attorney General has filed its notice of appeal of the Municipal Court decision in the Amtrak case,” spokesman Joe Grace said in a statement. “We are seeking a legal determination based on the proper standing for a preliminary hearing.”
The legal tug-of-war here seems to be differing opinions concerning the legal standard that fits the facts. It is very common for negligent conduct to cause immense harm, yet not rise to the level of criminal conduct. Mere negligence, even where it results in a death, is improperly considered to rise to the level of manslaughter. Unless the evidence demonstrates reckless disregard for the safety of others, or malicious conduct, no crime has been committed. A prosecutor will consider whether he can prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that degree of recklessness. When a prosecutor does not believe the evidence can convince a jury of the more egregious conduct, it is his ethical duty to decline prosecution. But, the engineer and the railroad do not escape responsibility merely because the conduct is not criminal. The victims and their families can, and did, seek to hold them responsible in civil lawsuits, where proof that the engineer’s conduct was, more likely than not, simple negligence; that is all the law requires to hold him and his employer responsible and accountable.
Amtrak Settled Lawsuits
Before charges were dismissed against Bostian, Amtrak reached a settlement resolving all claims related to the derailment. That settlement was worth around $265 million and involved 125 passengers, but was also open to all passengers who filed a lawsuit by January 31, 2017.
In October 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Legrome D. Davis approved the settlement, finding it would end lawsuits that could run for another three to five years.
2015 Pennsylvania Crash Renewed Calls for Train Safety
Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB member, said during a news conference that if positive train control (PTC), which is designed to slow or stop a train to prevent an accident, had been installed on that curve, the accident would not have happened.
“We feel that had such a system been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred,” Sumwalt said shortly after the derailment.
“We are seeing events that are absolutely preventable with positive train control, particularly on passenger operations,” said Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and chief executive of the National Safety Council. “When you consider investment priorities, safety comes last. Unfortunately, it absolutely has to come first.”
Positive train control would provide engineers and train dispatchers with real-time information about the train’s location and speed. Meanwhile, sensors along the tracks would help ensure trains did not speed, preventing derailments and tragedies. Computers can remotely control the train in cases where an engineer fails to follow the speed limit or operates the train improperly.
The cost and complexity of installing positive train control make it a challenge for some railroads to implement, the Association of American Railroads has argued, and deadlines for installing the system were pushed back from their original deadline of 2015.
Not installing it, however, has meant that lives have been put at risk, including the lives of the eight people who died in the Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia.