When Public Transit Kills, Who To Sue?

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(Washington, DC — David Schultz, WAMU) You can sue your boss, you can sue your spouse, you can sue your best friend - you can even sue yourself!

But you can't sue the government.

Photo courtesy: flickr user kristinashan

If the government enacts a law or a policy that injures you in some way - either physically or financially - you can't sue it for damages. That's because of a legal clause known as "sovereign immunity."

The clause has roots dating back to monarchical times. It's designed to give legislative bodies the freedom to make laws in the public good without fear of crippling legal payouts that would deplete their treasuries.

Of course, if you or your loved one has had your lives upended by, say, a horrific subway train crash, you're not a huge fan of sovereign immunity.

That's the dilemma facing the families of the nine people who lost their lives in D.C.'s Red Line train crash last year - the deadliest crash in the history of Metro.

The families are suing Metro in federal court for wrongful death, but Metro is claiming sovereign immunity. In other words, Metro is saying it can't be sued.

Federal Judge Reggie Walton struck an interesting balance when he ruled on this matter earlier today. Walton said Metro is liable for some of its actions in the lead up to the crash, but not all.

For example, Walton ruled the crash victims' families cannot sue Metro for not replacing its faulty 1000-series rail cars, which crumpled like telescopes in the crash. Even though it knew these cars were not "crash-worthy," Walton said Metro made an economic, political and practical decision not to replace them. (The 1000-series rail cars, which are still in use, comprise a third of Metro's fleet and will cost well over $1 billion to replace.) As a governmental organization, Metro had a right to make this decision, Walton said, regardless of whether it was the right one to make.

However, Metro may, in fact, be found liable on other counts. Prior to the crash, Metro's automatic train control system was sending out hundreds of alarms every day notifying Metro of signal malfunctions. But the alarms were so voluminous, Metro stopped paying attention to them and, thus, missed the warnings that could've prevented the crash. Michael Feldman, a lawyer for the family of one of the victims, compared this to taking the batteries out of an overactive smoke detector.

(Walton didn't rule on that aspect of the case this week, but in his questioning, he seemed to indicate he would come down in favor of the plaintiffs.)

In that sense, it seems the metric Walton is using is this: Metro can't be sued for a decision it made that may have contributed to the crash, but it can be sued for failing to follow its own decisions.