The Maryville attorney representing evacuees in a class action lawsuit against CSX Transportation Inc. said interest in the litigation is growing after a CSX train car carrying a toxic chemical derailed and caught fire July 2.

Attorney Kevin Shepherd filed the lawsuit Friday afternoon in Blount County Circuit Court along with Maryville residents Kelli and Aaron Johnson. The husband and wife are the only named plaintiffs at this time, but represent the estimated 5,000 who were forced to leave their homes after a train car carrying a hazardous chemical called acrylonitrile derailed and caught fire in the area of Mt. Tabor Road and Old Mt. Tabor Road on July 2.

Evacuation suit

The litigation, which seeks unspecified damages, wasn’t filed regarding any personal injuries people may have sustained due to possible exposure to the burning and leaking chemical. As Shepherd explained, the lawsuit was filed to recoup fair and appropriate costs associated with the forced evacuation and the general “nuisance” of the incident.

While CSX is already working to reimburse more than 4,100 households who were evacuated, Shepherd said he wants to ensure people are fairly compensated. A CSX spokesperson, who said the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation, said residents are being reimbursed for the costs of hotel, food and other expenses incurred as a result of the evacuation. CSX has also been handing out $500 checks to reimburse individuals for their inconvenience.

Shepherd told The Daily Times that the purpose of the lawsuit is to make sure people are properly compensated.

“I think obviously CSX would get credit for any contributions they’ve made,” Shepherd said. “If there are additional damages claimed by anybody, whatever payment CSX has made would be an offset or credit that would be considered.” He went on to say that he and the Johnsons are appreciative of CSX’s efforts so far in handling reimbursement, but that it’s not uncanny for a company to get out in front of the situation.

“I do appreicate the fact that CSX is doing this,” Shepherd said. “But this is very common nationwide. Whenever there are derailments or other accidents of a similar nature, they do very quickly move into the area and try to address some immediate (monetary concerns).”

Interest grows

Shepherd told The Daily Times while working from his office Saturday afternoon that since the lawsuit was filed shortly after 3 p.m. Friday, several residents have contacted him expressing interest in the litigation.

“It’s getting a lot of response and people wanting to get information,” Shepherd said. “So I expect it to get busier before it slows down. There’s been several people who’ve contacted us to be either a named plaintiff or to make sure they’re part of the process.”’

Shepherd said he would be spending a lot of time this week meeting with interested parties. But he’s also received some criticism for the lawsuit, he said. And it’s a sentiment he feels is unwarranted.

“We’re not the ones who dumped this chemical into the air or into the ground water,” Shepherd said. “We didn’t want this to happen, but it has happened, and so we need to address it and make sure that people are taken care of.”

Shepherd said his firm is getting help from the Tucson, Ariz., based law firm of Bellovin and Karnas, which has experience in both class action and toxic chemical litigation. Shepherd said Bellovin and Karnas has handled litigation against railroad companies in the past, including several cases against CSX.

Shepherd said he expect additional lawsuits to be filed against CSX, including for personal injury and regarding businesses who were forced to close and lost revenue.

Shepherd said he would be willing to handle those kinds of lawsuits as well.

Cleanup continues

In the meantime, CSX is working with federal and state officials in cleanup efforts at the derailment site. The Environmental Protection Agency reported that about 4,000 tons of soil was removed from the derailment site. A CSX spokesperson said that soil has since been replaced. CSX is continuing to move out equipment no longer needed at the site, and air, water and soil monitoring is continuing.

As of Friday, officials had received requests to monitor 112 wells in the area. Results on 83 wells have come back. Other than one well located about 350 feet from the derailment site, no acrylonitrile contamination has been found. The one contaminated well is still showing elevated levels of the chemical, officials said.

Crime and courts reporter for The Daily Times.

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