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Family sues railroad, agencies

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By David Giuliani

The family of a man who was killed trying to cross railroad tracks has sued the railroad, among other entities, for its suffering since the accident.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in state District Court in Las Vegas, names as defendants Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, Amtrak, the city of Las Vegas, San Miguel County and the Ride to Pride Partnership, which owns land next to the crossing.

Fred Stark was killed at the Rio Arriba Road crossing around 1 p.m. Sept. 11 as he was heading to the city’s nearby transfer station. He was in town from Colorado for his daughter’s wedding that weekend.

Last month, Michael Esquibel was the second person killed at the same crossing.

Many in the community are calling for warning lights and other safety equipment to be installed at the crossing; as it stands, there are only signs indicating that it is a crossing.

According to the lawsuit, Stark’s line of sight was blocked by vegetation on property next to the rail bed, so he began to cross the tracks without knowing that the Amtrak train was approaching at an “unreasonably” high rate of speed.

The lawsuit contends that the Amtrak train failed to sound the train horn and bell in time to warn Stark of the approaching danger, and the crew failed to apply the braking system or otherwise slow the train to avoid a collision.

His daughter, Victoria Stark-Romero, saw the accident and rushed to her father’s side, only to find him decapitated. The tracks are owned by Burlington Northern.

The lawsuit accuses Amtrak of gross negligence, and it seeks damages for wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress for members of the victim’s family.

An Amtrak spokesman said Friday that his organization would not comment on the lawsuit, saying it preferred to handle it through legal channels.

The plaintiffs, represented by Las Vegas attorney David Romero, are also suing Ride to Pride, alleging that the group allowed vegetation on its property to be an obstruction to people trying to cross the railroad tracks.

Ride To Pride is a program that serves juvenile offenders and troubled, abused and neglected children.

Lorraine Esquibel, Ride to Pride’s executive director, said her organization has been sued because of trees on a property leased by the program. She said Romero told her that Ride to Pride was included, in part, to make sure Amtrak doesn’t move the case out of Las Vegas.

“We aren’t the cause. People are getting killed. Amtrak is going too fast through there. Amtrak is way out of line,” said Esquibel, who is no relation to last month’s victim.

Romero said it’s true that if there were no local defendants, the railroad would insist on taking the matter to federal court.

“It’s important a Las Vegas jury make decisions on the safety of our own community,” he said.

Burlington Northern is named as a defendant because it didn’t improve the crossing conditions, the lawsuit states. The company said it didn't’ want to comment on pending litigation.

The city is named as a defendant because it owns the transfer station to the east of the tracks. People use Rio Arriba Road to go to the station.

The lawsuit contends that the city should have used “reasonable care” to keep access to the station safe for residents. The city doesn’t typically respond in the media to lawsuits.

The county is named because the lawsuit alleges that it owns the road.

However, County Manager Les Montoya has said the road is not on the county’s log.

After Esquibel’s death last month, the Optic interviewed officials from the city, the county, the state Department of Transportation, Amtrak and Burlington Northern. All said they weren’t responsible for the crossing.

After that, New Mexico Public Regulation Commission member Jerome Block organized a meeting of officials to develop a plan to get warning lights at the crossing.

Now, there are indications that the state has money to make that happen. Local legislators have introduced bills in the Legislature to that effect.