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Norfolk Southern suing engineer over Sewickley train crash

| Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, 1:44 p.m.

The engineer of a Norfolk Southern train missed or ignored a signal to slow down on July 2, causing his train to slam into the back of a second train in Sewickley, the railroad company says in a lawsuit filed on Wednesday.

The company is suing the engineer, Charles E. Heilig of Freedom, for the damages to the trains, the track and the right of way as well as cleanup costs. The lawsuit contained no estimate of the damage.

Heilig declined comment. There was no lawyer listed for him in federal court documents.

A spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen said Heilig isn't listed as one of its members. A spokesman for SMART, another union that includes railroad engineers, couldn't be reached for comment.

Norfolk Southern spokesman Dave Pidgeon declined comment.

Three train engines derailed near Chadwick Street and ignited a fireball. The derailment and fire damaged three locomotives, two railcars, the tracks and the right of way, the lawsuit says. The company had to pay to clean up diesel fuel spilled in the collision, the lawsuit says.

The railroad reported at the time that an engineer and a conductor were injured in the collision, but no names were released.

What Norfolk Southern would gain from winning the lawsuit isn't clear. Several lawyers familiar with employment and railroad laws said it's unlikely Heilig has an insurance policy that would cover a judgment in the case.

John Stember, an employment law attorney who represents a local of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said he's heard of companies trying to dock workers' pay or take other actions in response to accidents, but he hasn't heard of suing them in federal court for damages.

“I've never seen it, and I've done this a long time,” he said.

Robert Peirce, a personal injury lawyer who represents people injured in railroad incidents, had the same assessment.

“I've not seen one like it,” he said.

Sam Cordes, an employment lawyer who represents employees, said he's seen companies sue employees to recover damages they have to pay to third parties, but that only makes sense if the employee has an insurance policy.

“That is probably what's going on,” he said.

Two of the damaged locomotives belong to Union Pacific Railroad and one of the railcars belongs to TXX Co., the lawsuit says. Consequently, Norfolk could end up paying both of them damages as well as other third parties, the lawsuit says.

Eugene Keefe, a Chicago employment lawyer who represents companies, said another possibility is that the company wants to forestall a lawsuit from Heilig.

Railroad workers aren't covered by workers compensation laws and, under the Federal Employers Liability Act, can sue the railroad for on-the-job injuries.

If Heilig sued Norfolk Southern and won a judgment, the railroad could seek to recover the money by winning a judgment in this lawsuit, Keefe said.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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