A 2018 federal lawsuit filed on behalf of 394 residents suing over a train derailment incident in July 2015 in Maryville is coming to a close.
The case targeted the owner and operator of the train, CSX Transportation Inc., as well as Union Tank Car Co. UTC owned and manufactured the tank car that derailed and caught fire in 2015. A toxic chemical called acrylonitrile started leaking into the ground, and fumes from the burning chemical were sent into the air.
The two sides reached and settled the lawsuit for a confidential sum of money, according to a federal court filing on Aug. 5, 2019.
However, only about 42% of plaintiffs in the case signed the agreement with UTC and CSX, according to a Dec. 3, 2019, federal court filing. After extensive efforts to reach all plaintiffs through mailers, phone calls and three town hall meetings in October at the Blount County Library, 222 people had settled with CSX and 197 plaintiffs settled with Union Tank with 165 litigants not settling with either company.
Lawyers from both sides agreed to set a Feb. 28 deadline for the remaining plaintiffs to sign the settlement. A federal court hearing was held in Knoxville in Judge Thomas A. Varlan’s courtroom giving the remaining litigants one last chance to ink their names to the agreement.
At the Friday hearing, the audience section of the courtroom was empty, but Special Master Ed Davis said more residents had signed the agreement.
Davis said approximately 26 more plaintiffs signed the agreement with CSX and about 36 more had signed with Union — with one signature added on Friday morning.
Lead plaintiff attorney Douglas Nichol said in court on Friday afternoon the plaintiffs who did consent to the filing did not oppose to the agreement, but that simply didn’t affirmatively agree.
“We are surmising that they are not objecting,” Nichol said. “It’s just not worth their time.”
Varlan dismissed the claims of all plaintiffs who did not sign the agreement, and they have sixty days to refile a claim. If no one refiles by April 28, fund disbursements will commence, and all attorneys at Fridays hearing noted they are not expecting anyone to resubmit a claim.
Residents in Maryville and Alcoa impacted by the 2015 train incident gave The Daily Times varying accounts of what happened on the day of the derailment in 2015.
Some said the fumes affected their health, forcing them to relocate, seek extended medical help and take settlements they felt were too low.
One woman said she had received a letter concerning her settlement mid February and understood she would be receiving around $700.
“Something is better than nothing,” she said, recounting how her apartment was covered in a black substance after the derailment.
Another woman said she was still hoping to get around $700 for each of her children. She remembered being rushed out of her apartment by men in hazmat suits during the event and claimed she has never been healthy since.
She was also concerned about unfair and demeaning treatment by CSX legal representation, especially during a deposition she underwent.
Many residents affected by the incident have relocated since 2015.
Other lawsuits, train recap
An investigation by Federal Railroad Administration found the probable cause of the incident “was the sudden overheating and failure” of a roller bearing on the tank car.
The FRA investigation failed to pinpoint a cause for the sudden bearing failure, which overheated and caused the tank car above it — carrying nearly 25,000 gallons of acrylonitrile — to partially derail near Singleton Station Road in Louisville.
The car was dragged about nine miles before rupturing and starting a chemical fire in the area of Mt. Tabor and Old Mt. Tabor roads. That was shortly after midnight on July 2, 2015. Officials said about 5,000 people were evacuated from a radius of about two miles.
Eight lawsuits have been filed in over harm caused from 2015 train derailment citing similar grounds for damages. A case filed in 2015 went to trial in 2018.
Lawyers argued the case in March 2018, and a jury returned a verdict in Knoxville’s U.S. District Court awarding the six plaintiffs a total of $13,213 in damages for an average of $2,202 per plaintiff. They were seeking more than $5 million.
The plaintiffs had asked more than $25,000 each for alleged damages to include property damage, loss of income, aggravation, inconvenience, fear, anxiety and mental anguish. They also sought more than $1 million in punitive damages.
Jurors found UTC was not negligent, but the derailment caused a nuisance on the plaintiffs’ properties, awarding each damages for inconvenience and the loss of use of their property. Jurors also determined UTC was 40% responsible for the nuisance, while CSX, who settled that case before the trial, was responsible for 60%.