The case of William Rockefeller

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, December 3, 2016

You hear about the herd of horses that stampeded off a cliff? Their owner sued God for failing to fence the cliff. No? Okay, that never happened. But the nearest thing to it did this week. William Rockefeller, the former Metro-North Railroad engineer whose commuter train careened around a curve and derailed while he dozed off, has sued the railroad and its parent, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, seeking $10 million for injuries, lost wages and suffering.

His claim: It’s all Metro-North’s fault. If it had installed Positive Train Control, his lawsuit alleges, the accident would never have happened.

Rockefeller was at the controls of a train bound from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to Grand Central Terminal. Just after 7 o’clock that Sunday morning, December 1, 2013, his train was passing through the Bronx at Spuyten Duyvil station. There’s a 30-mph speed restriction for a sharp curve, but this train hit the curve at 82. It overturned, killing four people and injuring 60.

Rockefeller was later diagnosed as having sleep apnea, an abnormality that robs you of rest even while you sleep. (If your nearest and dearest snores loudly and even gasps for breath while staying asleep, apnea may be the cause.) Obesity was said to have accentuated the apnea. He later said in a statement: “I [don]'t know how to explain it ... it was sort of like I was dazed, you know, looking straight ahead, almost like mesmerized. And I don't know if anybody's ever experienced like driving a long period of time in a car and staring at the taillights in front of them, and you get almost like that hypnotic feeling staring straight ahead ... [it was] that hypnotized feeling, dazed, that's what I was [feeling].”

Prosecutors considered lodging criminal charges against Rockefeller, then closed the case. He retired at age 46, never having worked after the accident, with a Railroad Retirement disability pension. One thing about the lawsuit is undeniable regarding Metro-North: It doesn't have PTC installed and in fact hasn't really done a damn thing to date. That's because the politicians who control it and set its budget haven't given it the money and probably won't until after the 2018 deadline. But Rockefeller didn't sue the politicians.

I want to know what you think. But you probably want to know what I think, too, so here goes. I think I would love to be selected for the jury should this ever go to trial. William Rockefeller is a lucky guy. He survived the accident. He got a lifetime pension in middle age. He didn’t get sent to prison by prosecutors. He should have left it at that. If he had, we’d probably all feel sorry for his unlucky break. But he did not leave it at that. Not only does he not accept responsibility for his part of this, he wants to be enriched. Case dismissed. Plaintiff pays all legal fees. Court adjourned.

That's what I think. Now it's your turn.—Fred W. Frailey

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