Parties spread blame in fatal train accident

Vanessa Ebbeling

A train-car accident in 2006 left Jessica Sosso with enduring pain.

It also caused $18,000 damage to a CSX train and train tracks at the Reber Road railroad crossing in Rome.

And it caused terror and severe injuries for 17-year-old Sara Thaler, who died shortly after the accident on Aug. 16, 2006.

Those allegations are just a few of the claims made in multiple lawsuits that have been filed in connection with the accident which injured five teens.

Most of the teens in the car, or their parents, are suing the city of Rome and CSX Transportation, the company that owned the train and the tracks, claiming those groups failed to make the crossing safe.

They're also suing the driver of the car, Megan Amble, for driving recklessly, as well as vehicle owners Robert and Victoria Hessong, who allowed Amble access to the vehicle. Thaler, of Oriskany, was partially ejected from the rear windshield of the 2004 Ford Taurus, medical records filed with the lawsuit show.

“As a result of the pre-impact terror and the post-impact injuries and trauma … she suffered great conscious pain and suffering and emotional trauma which continued until her death,” according to court papers filed on behalf of Thaler's mother, Randi Thaler.

Thaler's attorney, Carl V. Graziadei, declined to comment on the case Friday.

Court records, however, show that while Thaler's mother is suing the city of Rome, Robert Hessong and Amble, she is not suing CSX. According to attorney correspondence, Thaler was advised of the “complex costs versus benefits” of suing CSX and the likelihood that a jury would hold CSX responsible for the accident.

Passengers Sosso, Thomas Hoyte and Marie Fournier were also in the vehicle, along with Thaler and Amble.

In May, Amble paid a $150 fine after pleading guilty to operating a vehicle in violation of restrictions placed on her license in connection with the crash.

Among the allegations in the lawsuits:

* The city failed to make the crossing safe by allowing brush to cover a stop sign and limit motorists' visibility when crossing the tracks.

* The two-engine, 45-car freight train was traveling at an excessive rate of speed, failed to sound its horn and was operated by unskilled employees.

* Amble failed to keep control of the vehicle, causing it to become stuck on the tracks in the train's path.

CSX and the city of Rome have fired back, asserting the teens knew the risk involved in crossing the tracks and they should have been more cautious.

CSX is also seeking damages to the locomotive and tracks, which they estimate to be about $18,000, court papers show.

CSX officials declined to comment on pending litigation, and Rome City Corporation Counsel Diane Martin-Grande likewise declined to elaborate on the city's response.

“What I can tell you is that it's a tragic case, and it involves the loss of life,” Martin-Grande said Friday. “I'm sure all the parties are going to litigate, and I hope a fair and just resolution is going to be reached.”

Attorneys for the teens say the city failed to mark Reber Road as a dead end, leading the teens to drive to the end of the road where they had to turn around and again pass over the tracks, court documents said.

While traveling back up the road to its intersection with Route 69, the car became disabled “while it lay stuck across the tracks unable to achieve the traction required to proceed across the tracks and out of the path of the oncoming CSX train,” a filing from Sosso's attorney, Michael Laucello, states.

Amble allegedly did not unlock the car doors so the occupants could escape the vehicle, the document states.

Sosso sustained serious injuries including pelvic, rib, jaw and teeth fractures, spleen lacerations and knee injuries.

Laucello could not be reached for comment.

In response, Amble's attorneys sought a court order that would prevent CSX from altering or disposing of the train or its “black box,” in order to determine if the train was defective and learn more about the train's activity leading up to the accident.

Amble's attorney, Stephanie Palmer, could not be reached for comment.

Hoyte's attorney, Rocco Versace, and Fournier's attorney, Abbie Goldbas, also could not be reached.

The suits also allege CSX and the city failed to create barriers, or other safety devices that would stop cars from attempting to cross the tracks when there wasn't enough time to make it safely.

At this point, no future court appearances have been scheduled as the suit enters its discovery phase, Martin-Grande said. All parties involved will now make requests for each other party to produce documents, photographs and medical records related to their arguments, she said.

Contributing: Rocco LaDuca/Observer-Dispatch