More than 20 percent of Paulsboro residents speak to lawyers over chemical spill

Vinyl chloride leaked from a tanker when a train derailed. ED HILLE / Staff
Vinyl chloride leaked from a tanker when a train derailed. ED HILLE / Staff (Photographer)
Posted: February 24, 2013

Lawsuits accusing Conrail and its parent companies, CSX Corp. and Norfolk Southern Corp., of negligence in the November train derailment and chemical spill in Paulsboro continue to mount, and lawyers say more than 20 percent of the town has spoken to counsel.

The latest suit, on behalf of 13 residents, seeks punitive damages and medical monitoring for possible future health problems. It was filed in Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia, where Conrail is based.

At least 1,300 people, most from Paulsboro but some from surrounding towns such as Gibbstown, have consulted lawyers about joining the suits, according to the lawyers. That is more than one-fifth of Paulsboro's population of 6,100.

Nine lawsuits, including seven seeking class-action status, have been filed in U.S. District Court in Camden, according to a court official. Eight of those have been consolidated for pretrial purposes, the official said, though they are likely to be treated as separate cases if they reach trial.

Like many of the other suits, the latest alleges that Conrail was negligent for failing to maintain the swing bridge that buckled Nov. 30, sending four cars into Mantua Creek. One breached and released 23,000 gallons of toxic vinyl chloride into the atmosphere.

The suit notes that the train crossed the bridge even though the signal was red, indicating that the tracks had not locked. The suit also notes that Conrail had received "trouble tickets" from crews in the months before the derailment that reported problems with the bridge. The National Safety Transportation Board has confirmed those reports.

The suit also says Conrail should have told all residents that they needed to evacuate. A unified command led by the Coast Guard ordered the evacuation of nearly 700 residents after the accident.

Conrail spokesman Michael Hotra said, "We will respond to the allegations in this lawsuit in court and at the appropriate time."

Attorneys for the residents anticipate the release of a report by the NTSB, which has been investigating the derailment and the emergency response. An NTSB spokesman said the report could be released in early spring.

Robert J. Campbell, a lawyer representing about 25 people, said the report would have a "very significant impact."

"They're one of the main sources of governmental investigation," he said. "They will be, naturally, heavily relied upon as a source of information."

Campbell added that at this stage, lawyers were trying to determine who the defendants should be. "Is it just Conrail and their entities, or are there others involved?" he said.

Conrail has been offering cash settlements to Paulsboro residents who waive their right to sue the company for "any and all . . . unknown and unanticipated injuries and damages resulting" from the leak of vinyl chloride, the five-page settlement document says. Residents have said the offers range from $500 to $2,500.

"I wonder whether when that report comes out whether people settling will regret decisions once they hear all the facts," said Mark Cuker, a lawyer who filed a lawsuit on behalf of more than 50 residents in December and who said his firm represented about 600 people who will likely join the suit soon.


Contact Andrew Seidman at 856-779-3846, aseidman@phillynews.com, or follow @AndrewSeidman on Twitter.

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