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Wilmotte v. National Railroad Passenger Corp.

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

August 9, 2019

BLAINE WILMOTTE and MADISON WILMOTTE, Plaintiffs,
v.
NATIONAL RAILROAD PASSENGER CORPORATION d/b/a AMTRAK, Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT ON PUNITIVE DAMAGES

          BENJAMIN H. SETTLE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant National Railroad Passenger Corporation d/b/a Amtrak's (“Amtrak”) motion for summary judgment on punitive damages. Dkt. 44. The Court has considered the pleadings filed in support of and in opposition to the motion and the remainder of the file and hereby grants the motion for the reasons stated herein.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On January 4, 2018, Plaintiffs Blaine and Madison Wilmotte (“Wilmottes”) filed a complaint for damages against Amtrak in King County Superior Court for the State of Washington. Dkt. 1-2. In relevant part, the Wilmottes seek pecuniary and exemplary damages. Id. ¶ 6.1.

         On January 19, 2018, Amtrak removed the matter to this Court. Dkt. 1.

         On June 27, 2019, Amtrak filed the instant motion seeking dismissal of the Wilmottes' claims for punitive damages. Dkt. 44.[1] On July 29, 2019, the Wilmottes responded. Dkt. 54. On August 8, 2019, Amtrak replied. Dkt. 58.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The majority of the facts relevant to this motion are undisputed. The Amtrak Cascades line operates from Eugene, Oregon to Vancouver, British Columbia. On December 18, 2017, Amtrak began service on a new section of track on the Cascades line, which bypassed Point Defiance (“Point Defiance Bypass”). This section of track is approximately 20 miles and runs from Olympia to Tacoma, Washington. A part of the section is commonly referred to as the Lakewood Subdivision. Sound Transit is a public transit authority serving the nearby communities, owns the Lakewood Subdivision, and operates as a host railroad for Amtrak.

         In response to an Amtrak derailment outside of Philadelphia in 2015, Congress passed the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act (“FAST Act”), PL 114-94, 129 Stat. 1312. In certain situations, the FAST Act required railroad carriers to “identify each main track location where there is a reduction of more than 20 miles per hour from the approach speed to a curve, bridge, or tunnel.” § 11406, 129 Stat. at 1684-85. Railroad carriers were required to develop speed limit action plans including “increased crew communication, ” to prevent overspeed derailments at the identified track locations. Id. Importantly, the carrier, in this case Amtrak, was responsible for meeting the requirements of the Fast Act and not the host railroad, Sound Transit. Id.

         It is undisputed that Amtrak failed to comply with the FAST Act's requirements for the inaugural run on the Point Defiance Bypass. At milepost 19.8 (“MP 19.8”) of the Lakewood Subdivision, there is a 49 mile per hour (“mph”) speed reduction curve where trains must reduce their speed from 79 mph to 30 mph. Neither Amtrak's regional safety office, located in Seattle, Washington, nor Amtrak's national safety office, located in Wilmington, Delaware, included any warning of the MP 19.8 speed reduction curve in its General Order for the territory covering the Point Defiance Bypass. The General Order provides the instructions for all Amtrak employees operating in the specific geographic area. Dkt. 55-9 at 2.[2] The order is intended to include a list of all FAST Act locations, and the order instructs the conductor to verbally remind the locomotive engineer of the upcoming speed reduction location. Id. at 34-35.

         The parties dispute which office is to blame for failing to include the speed reduction curve at ¶ 19.8 in the General Order. Although the parties have each submitted voluminous evidence in support of their respective positions, the Court declines to summarize this evidence because the evidence supports a conclusion that Amtrak employees in both Seattle and Delaware were negligent by omission regarding this speed reduction curve. Solely for the purposes of the instant motion, the Court will give the Wilmottes the benefit of the doubt in finding that Amtrak's Delaware employees were more negligent than the Seattle employees, which is itself a dubious conclusion.[3]

         On December 17, 2018, the inaugural run, Amtrak 501, left the Amtrak station at Tacoma, Washington heading toward MP 19.8. As the train approached the curve, the conductor failed to verbally remind the engineer of the need to reduce the train's speed to 30 mph. The train entered the curve at a high rate of speed, derailed, and resulted in a horrible accident killing three passengers and injuring numerous others, including the Wilmottes when train cars landed on the interstate highway under the curve.

         III. DISCUSSION

         In this case, the Wilmottes seek pecuniary and exemplary damages. Id. ¶ 6.1. Under Washington tort law, however, punitive damages are not allowed. Thus, the ...


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