SURVIVORS SEE LIABILITY LOCKOUT IN RAIL CRASH COURT PETITION

SURVIVORS SEE LIABILITY LOCKOUT IN RAIL CRASH COURT PETITION

Attorneys for several survivors of the fatal Sept. 22 crash of Amtrak's Sunset Limited Wednesday accused the railroad and owner of a towboat involved in the crash of trying to "cut up the pie" before liability claims could be heard.

In a status hearing in Mobile, Ala., on Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, an attorney for Warrior & Gulf Navigation Inc. asked Judge Daniel H. Thomas to limit the company's liability to $432,000 - the cost of the towboat and barges.The National Transportation Safety Board has said it appears the towboat's barges hit a rail bridge, weakening it moments before the train, racing along at some 72 mph, plunged into the Bayou Canot, killing 47 people.

Attorney Broox G. Holmes also filed a court petition this week blaming CSX Transportation Inc., which owned the bridge and track, and Amtrak for the disaster.

Attorneys for several survivors of the crash objected to the petition as a potential roadblock for getting jury trials of their clients' lawsuits in state court.

Steve Martino, an attorney for a passenger, accused Warrior & Gulf and the railroad of trying to "cut up the pie" without having jury trials. Mr. Martino contends that would happen if the federal court exonerates the barge company.

Judge Thomas set June 1, 1994, as the trial date for the liability limitation motion.

Warrior & Gulf previously has acknowledged that the tow was lost in the Bayou Canot, a backwater off the Mobile River, which the inland waterway company uses.

Judge Thomas, who has not blocked the filing of claims in state court, questioned whether the Warrior & Gulf petition shifting blame belonged in the federal proceeding on the limits of liability.

"We are entitled to present our case," said Mr. Holmes, signaling a lengthy legal battle ahead involving scores of experts on shipping, rails and bridge engineers.

Accident claims have already exceeded $100 million, with March the deadline for submitting them.

In the petition, Warrior & Gulf described the bridge as "an illegal obstruction to navigation" that was built without warning devices, lights or signals, or fender systems.