Agreement reached for serious injuries in SC train wreck

Published 6:34 pm Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Hundreds of residents and workers seriously injured when a freight train wreck released a toxic chlorine cloud over the mill town of Graniteville killing nine people would get thousands of dollars under a tentative agreement reached by attorneys for the railroad and victims.

Settlements for mill workers, residents and emergency responders who sought medical treatment within three days of the derailment could range anywhere from $15,000 to upward of $500,000 for each person, attorneys said Tuesday.

Those who would get the most money “would have been hospitalized for a number of days. They would have to have some residual lung function loss or some other sensitivity,” said plaintiffs attorney Joe Rice.

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The wreck happened Jan. 6, 2005, when a Norfolk Southern train plowed into a parked train on a side track, causing a cloud of chlorine to spread over parts of Graniteville and nearby Avondale Mills plants. Hundreds of people were injured and roughly 5,400 residents were evacuated from the tiny town about 60 miles southwest of Columbia.

“This is a major settlement,” said Norfolk Southern attorney Daniel White. “The settlement terms are ones that are to be attractive.”

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board have said the crew rushing to finish its work late the night before the derailment neglected to realign a hand-operated switch, causing a Norfolk Southern train to run off the main line and slam into railroad cars parked on a spur.

If this new agreement is approved by a judge, it would be the second class-action settlement in the Graniteville wreck.

A federal judge previously approved a settlement for damages and minor injuries. Under that agreement, a family of five with no major illnesses that was evacuated for 13 days received about $15,000 in addition to property damages and other losses.

“A person could receive a substantial amount of money,” said attorney Carl Solomon, who has clients that would receive money under the new agreement. “This one is much larger than the $200 a day.”

Norfolk Southern has settled about 4,500 legal claims from the derailment, including seven of nine wrongful death lawsuits. Those settlement amounts were confidential, White said.

The railroad has previously said it spent about $39 million cleaning up the accident and paying claims.

Roughly 700 people could qualify for the new class-action lawsuit. The railroad hopes it will settle most of the pending lawsuits, but realizes some people will pursue their own case.

Both sides praised the how quickly the settlement came together and noted that attorneys fees would not affect how much money a person receives.

“I think this is significantly above historical averages for the type of injuries,” Rice said. “These people don’t need to be waiting another five years.”

Avondale Mills, a roughly 160-year-old Georgia-based textile company, announced in the spring it would end operations in the area because the train wreck and chlorine release caused so much damage to its plants.

The company still has a lawsuit pending against Norfolk Southern.