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Attorney: Train Wreck Victims' Families Deserve $20 Million
Thursday, March 21st, 2013
Issue 12, Volume 17.
The defense countered that the women put themselves in harm's way because the one behind the wheel was drunk, and also argued that the train crew acted responsibly.
Plaintiffs' attorney Ron Makarem acknowledged that 23-year-old Renee Ammari and 18-year-old Tanya Sayegh shared some responsibility for the Nov. 1, 2007, collision that claimed both their lives. But he said once the pair had become stranded near the railroad crossing, it was up to the conductor and engineer aboard the mile-long train to prevent a collision.
"The crew of this train had plenty of time to stop it. The crew's inaction was a substantial factor in the deaths of these girls," Makarem told jurors in his closing statement.
"The crew could see the bouncing headlights of the girls' car," he said. "The girls put the hazard lights on 25 seconds before the train reached their location. There was an obvious obstruction. Why didn't the crew apply the brakes?"
Makarem went through testimony by expert witnesses who calculated time- speed-distance equations, factoring in the weight of the train and the condition of the tracks, which indicated the crew could have brought the 86-car train to a halt with room to spare if the emergency brakes had been engaged at least 1,200 feet from the crossing.
"The value of a child's life is priceless," the attorney said. "We're asking for reasonable compensation for the loss of companionship, affection and comfort these two families have suffered."
Though he asked for a $10 million compensatory damage award for each family, Makarem anticipated that jurors would assign 50 percent responsibility for the fatal wreck on the women, hence slashing the award in half to $5 million apiece.
UPR has assets worth in excess of $45 billion and last year had net earnings of $3.2 billion, according to financial statements.
The 150-year-old railroad hauls freight on lines that traverse 23 states, as well as most of Southern California.
"The crew of this train was not careless," said UPR attorney Anthony Sonnett in his closing statement. "They didn't just say, 'Hey, let's keep barreling down the track and see what happens' ... The lights from Ms. Ammari's black SUV were not clearly visible until 600 feet before impact."
Sonnett reiterated what he said at the start of the two-week trial that the two women made "tragic" decisions that precipitated the fatal collision.
"When young people drink and drive, it's a recipe for disaster," the attorney told jurors. "The risk of an accident happening that night was off the charts. What would've happened if they hadn't decided to drive? What would've happened if they had simply gotten out of the car and walked to safety? What if they had heeded the warnings of a security guard to get off the tracks?"
Ammari's blood-alcohol level was .15 -- more than twice the legal limit to operate a vehicle in California.
Sonnett pointed out that the UPR crew -- conductor Glenn Holmes and engineer Carl Zipperman -- had a green track signal as they picked up speed passing through Riverside. The attorney said even the train's front-mounted video camera couldn't definitively pick up the shape of a vehicle on the tracks until the 8-million-pound locomotive was seconds away from a collision.
"The car was 100 feet away from the rail crossing. When the crew first saw those bouncing headlights a half mile away, it was not unreasonable to think a vehicle was making a U-turn at the crossing," Sonnett said.
Last week, the plaintiffs' expert witness, Colon Fulk, a former train engineer routinely hired to testify in train-related lawsuits, asserted that the engineer should have pulled the train's emergency brake within seconds of spotting the headlights of the women's vehicle.
"They had 2,700 feet to go," Fulk said. "Why take a chance?"
Sonnett said the engineer yanked the emergency brake and pulled the 35 mph train's power to idle when he confirmed there was a car in his path, but there wasn't enough time to stop by then.
Ammari and Sayegh, both of San Bernardino, had been at a Halloween party at Cafe Sevilla in downtown Riverside just before they were killed. According to investigators, they left the party around 1 a.m., heading southeast on Mission Inn Avenue.Ammari turned her 1996 Honda Passport onto a gravel strip that straddles three sets of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad tracks at Santa Fe Avenue.
Riverside County coroner's officials said the disoriented woman apparently realized her mistake and attempted to make a U-turn on the tracks to get back to Mission Inn, but she ran her SUV into a retaining wall. The rear of the vehicle was positioned over a set of tracks. The women were standing behind the Passport when the train plowed into it, rolling it over them.
Women Killed in Train Accident Remembered as 'Fun,' 'Down-to-Earth'
RIVERSIDE - Two young women killed by a Union Pacific Railroad train that crashed into a vehicle one of them had driven onto the tracks while intoxicated in downtown Riverside were remembered today as fun-loving and compassionate.
Renee Ammari, 23, and Tanya Sayegh, 18, were killed on Nov. 1, 2007, when an 86-car UPR train collided with Ammari's SUV at a crossing along Mission Inn and Santa Fe avenues.
The women's families sued the 150-year-old freight line, which financial statements show has more than $47 billion in assets, for an undisclosed seven- figure sum that their attorneys are expected to specify Monday.
The plaintiffs closed their case this afternoon with the testimony of loved ones from each family.
"My daughter was a beautiful child, a joy to be around," Jackleen Ammari tearfully recalled. "She was always there for me. I would tell her about my problems if I had any. She didn't want to see me sad."
Ammari said the loss of her daughter had left an enormous void that she copes with by making diary entries, filling her journal with observations she longs to share with her deceased child.
"Nothing is the same," she testified.
Renee Ammari's younger brother, Faraz, remembered his sister as a giving person, active in her church and regularly playing the role of peacemaker.
"She didn't hold grudges," the young man said. "She had a way of always getting through to you. She was the centerpiece of our family."
He said he fell in love with Sayegh, his sister's close friend, and they had become seriously involved in a relationship four months before the fatal accident.
"Tanya was a really down-to-earth person. A lot of fun to be around," Ammari testified. "She enjoyed the outdoors, concerts and music. After what happened, it wasn't easy. But I had to be there for my family."
The plaintiffs contend UPR was negligent because its crew had sufficient time to bring the 8-million-pound train to a full stop before it reached the railroad crossing but didn't act quickly enough to prevent the collision.
On Monday, the plaintiffs' expert witness, Colon Fulk, a train engineer with three decades experience driving locomotives, testified that the engineer should have pulled the emergency brake on the mile-long train within seconds of spotting the "bouncing headlights" of the women's vehicle more than a half- mile away.
"They had 2,700 feet to go," Fulk said. "You don't know for sure what's up there. Why take a chance?"
The witness said the train was at 75 percent power until just seconds before impact.
"Moving that throttle to idle takes a second or less," Fulk said.
Defense attorney Anthony Sonnett told jurors that the conductor and engineer had followed protocol and reacted as they should have, applying the pneumatic brakes and chopping the locomotive's power once they verified a vehicle was in the train's path. By that time, however, the train was only a few hundred feet from impact.
Ammari and Sayegh, both of San Bernardino, had been at a Halloween party at Cafe Sevilla in downtown Riverside just before they were killed. According to investigators, they left the party around 1 a.m., heading southeast on Mission Inn Avenue. Ammari turned her 1996 Honda Passport onto a gravel strip that straddles three sets of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad tracks at Santa Fe Avenue.
According to a coroner's report, Ammari had a blood-alcohol level that was nearly twice the legal limit to operate a motor vehicle in California at the time.
Coroner's officials said the disoriented woman apparently realized her mistake and attempted to make a U-turn on the tracks to get back to Mission Inn, but her SUV became stuck between the tracks and a retaining wall.
The defense said the women had 50 seconds to walk away before the northbound train, traveling at 36 mph, reached their location and plowed into the SUV.
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