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Wife of one of three killed in Amtrak crash in Montana files wrongful death lawsuit


An Amtrak passenger whose husband was killed when their train derailed and tragically crashed over the weekend sued the company Tuesday, claiming the horrific incident was a ‘preventable tragedy.’

Rebecca Schneider suffered ‘severe and life-altering injuries’ in the deadly derailment in Montana Saturday, while her husband, Zach, a 28-year-old software engineer, was one of three who tragically lost his life. 

The pair, who hailed from Illinois, were on their way to Portland, Oregon, when eight of the 10 train cars train suddenly derailed in the rural town of Joplin near the center of the state, possibly ejecting several passengers.

Rebecca Schneider was one of dozens injured in the deadly derailment in Montana Saturday, will while her husband, Zach, 28, was one of three who tragically lost his life. Rebecca is now seeking legal action against Amtrak on behalf of her husband and her family through a wrongful death suit

Two others perished as a result of the tragic incident - Marjorie Varnadoe, 72, and Donald Varnadoe, 74, a retired Georgia couple who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary by embarking on a celebratory cross-country trip when their lives were suddenly snuffed out

Two others perished as a result of the tragic incident – Marjorie Varnadoe, 72, and Donald Varnadoe, 74, a retired Georgia couple who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary by embarking on a celebratory cross-country trip when their lives were suddenly snuffed out

Two others perished as a result of the incident; Marjorie Varnadoe, 72, and Donald Varnadoe, 74, a retired Georgia couple who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary by embarking on a celebratory cross-country trip when their lives were suddenly snuffed out. 

Dozens of others were severely injured.  

Rebecca Schneider’s wrongful death suit on behalf of her husband, who hailed from Illinois, was filed in a federal court in Chicago Tuesday – where the Empire Builder train they were on was heading when it suddenly derailed.  

The train was moving under its designated speed limit at the time of the crash, at about 75 mph. 

Workers are seen above on Monday standing near train tracks next to overturned cars from an Amtrak train that derailed on Saturday near Joplin, Montana

Workers are seen above on Monday standing near train tracks next to overturned cars from an Amtrak train that derailed on Saturday near Joplin, Montana

The filing notes that the last three passenger cars, including the sleeper car where Rebecca was found after the crash, 'completely decoupled from the rest of the train and were forcefully thrown from the tracks, flipping and landing on their sides'

The filing notes that the last three passenger cars, including the sleeper car where Rebecca was found after the crash, ‘completely decoupled from the rest of the train and were forcefully thrown from the tracks, flipping and landing on their sides’

The suit also names track owner BNSF Railway, and alleges that Zach Schneider died as a result of a ‘preventable tragedy.’ 

The filing adds that Amtrak and BNSF ‘had an obligation to prevent any trains… from traveling on their tracks unless Defendants could ensure that the tracks were safe.’

What’s more, the wrongful death suit was filed by attorneys who previously represented victims in another fatal Amtrak derailment – a crash in 2015 in Philadelphia that left eight people dead and injured more than 200 others.

The lawyers belong to Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky, P.C., a Philadelphia-based firm.

Attorney Robert J. Mongeluzzi stated in the suit that his team will analyze issues with the track and switches that may have potentially caused the crash, as well as possible sources of human error. 

Rebecca states that her husband died as a result of a 'preventable tragedy' and that she suffered 'severe and life-altering injuries' after the incident

Rebecca states that her husband died as a result of a ‘preventable tragedy’ and that she suffered ‘severe and life-altering injuries’ after the incident

‘Trains should not derail,’ Mongeluzzi said. ‘The passengers of those trains have no control whatsoever regarding the safety of their journey. 

‘They put their lives in the hands of the companies that operate trains and the railroad companies who own and maintain the tracks. It is clear, without question, that something went wrong and horribly wrong to kill three people.’

The legal team will also look into the efficacy of a newly implemented automatic breaking system currently employed by the train company, that should have prevented the crash. 

The lawsuit also brings up a possible problem with Amtrak tracks caused by a phenomenon known as heat-induced buckling, a result of years of extreme swings in temperature, where rail lines can become deformed by extreme heat, creating buckles in the tracks.

‘Track buckling is an occurrence that is known to Defendants Amtrak and BNSF, and Defendants had a duty to ensure that a neutral rail temperature was maintained and to monitor the condition of the rails to ensure that no track buckling occurred and to put in place policies and procedures to ensure that this was accomplished,’ the suit state.

NTSB investigators haven’t commented on that possibility.

According to the suit, a fourth car - where Zach's body was recovered - did not decouple, but 'was launched from the tracks and flipped onto its side'

According to the suit, a fourth car – where Zach’s body was recovered – did not decouple, but ‘was launched from the tracks and flipped onto its side’

The location where the train derailed, however, could point to buckling as the cause. 

At the time of the derailment, Zach Schneider was not with his wife and was seated in the train’s viewing car, whereas Rebecca was resting in its sleeper car – the last car of the train, court documents reveal.

‘When the viewing car derailed and was thrown from the tracks, Zach Schneider sustained excruciating and devastating injuries to his body and head, which ultimately caused his tragic and untimely death,’ the filing reads.

Rebecca suffered ‘severe and life-altering injuries’ when the sleeper car derailed and flipped onto its side, her suit states.

The filing notes that the last three passenger cars, including the sleeper car where Rebecca was found after the crash, ‘completely decoupled from the rest of the train and were forcefully thrown from the tracks, flipping and landing on their sides.’

According to the suit, a fourth car – where Zach’s body was recovered – did not decouple, but ‘was launched from the tracks and flipped onto its side.’

‘Zach was just an incredible man,’ Mongeluzzi said. ‘This has been a devastating loss to his wife, Rebecca, who was his soul mate, and she wants us to find out what happened and to make sure it never happens again.’

The filing from Schneider is the first of what could be a slew of lawsuits targeting the railroad company – which has seen four derailments in the past six years. 

Clifford Law Offices, a Chicago-based legal outfit that helped win a $57 million settlement against the company after a derailment in 2017 in Dupont, Washington, revealed Tuesday their firm was also recently employed by a passenger injured in Saturday’s rail incident.

Twenty-eight people have perished in the past decade as direct result of Amtrak crashes and derailment. 

The fatal crash was the first since Amtrak implemented a forced-arbitration policy that blocks passengers and their families from suing the railroad after deaths or injuries from crashes. 

When purchasing a ticket from Amtrak, passengers – often unknowingly – consent to arbitrate any disputes, relinquishing their right to take claims against the company to court. 

The policy was put into effect in January 2019 after the Philadelphia and Washington state crashes, in 2016 and 2017 respectively, which yielded multimillion-dollar settlements for the victims. 

Several members of Congress last year sought to implement laws that would pressure Amtrak to restore the legal rights of its passengers and their families to bring disputes before a judge or jury – but have so far been unsuccessful.

A nonprofit organization that called the arbitration clause ‘unconstitutional’ and asks that it be removed from the company’s ticketing terms. filed a lawsuit against the passenger rail last year, but it was dismissed. 

The suit has since been appealed in D.C. Circuit Court.  

Cars from an Amtrak train that derailed the day before are shown illuminated by floodlights late on Sunday

Cars from an Amtrak train that derailed the day before are shown illuminated by floodlights late on Sunday

It is unclear how the newly implemented policy might effect legal proceedings after Amtrak’s most recent accident, but several advocates and attorneys said spoke out against the company Tuesday, citing concerns that arbitration favors Amtrak, a state-owned enterprise – meaning, despite it being a privately owned entity, the federal government owns all its preferred stock.

‘This is an entity that is partially owned by the U.S. government,’ stated attorney Sean Driscoll, of Clifford Law Offices. 

‘Now it has put in a policy where they want to deny their passengers their constitutional right to a jury trial by this arbitration agreement.’ 

Driscoll added: ‘Clifford Law Offices is going to do everything in our power to contest the validity of the arbitration agreement.’

Linda Lipsen, chief executive of the American Association for Justice, also said that victims of the fatal crash should have the option to take their cases to court.

‘Amtrak should be held accountable in an open forum, not behind closed doors,’ Lipsen said. 

‘Families are grieving, but soon, those who lost breadwinners, partners or parents are going to consider seeking justice against those responsible for their unimaginable loss. But a forced arbitration clause will have already made that choice for them.’ 

In a statement Tuesday responding to Schneider’s suit, the passenger rail stated, ‘Amtrak is sorry for Mrs. Schneider’s and the Schneider family’s loss. We are offering assistance to injured passengers and employees and the families of those who have lost loved ones but are otherwise unable to comment on pending litigation.’ 

BNSF declined to comment on the lawsuit. 

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the derailment. An NTSB spokesman on Tuesday said ‘there is no new information to report at this time.’ 



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