An Alabama woman whose husband was decapitated while training to be a Norfolk Southern conductor last year has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the embattled rail company.
Walter James Griffin III, 43, was killed in the early morning hours of Dec. 13, in Bessemer, Alabama.
He was in the cab with another conductor when their train passed by a parked freight car with a protruding beam that crashed through the window and struck Griffin in the head, killing him, Al.com reported.
Investigators deemed the incident a “freak accident.”
Griffin’s widow, Sherita Fields, filed the suit against Norfolk Southern, U.S. Pipe Fabrication and others for wrongful death in in Jefferson County Circuit Court in January.
Attorneys for Griffin’s family alleged in the suit that the railway is at fault for not properly inspecting the train and freight car — both of which were owned by Norfolk Southern. They are seeking unspecified damages.
“I see how it was described as a freak accident, but I do not think that is a proper characterization of it,” Griffin family attorney David Brown told WRBC. “This is something that is preventable, this is not just a random type of situation. This is something where there was clear fault by the individuals involved.”
“[The metal beam] shouldn’t protrude in the first place,” he continued. “The law requires entities to do inspections of their loads before they actually leave the property. We see a very straightforward situation where the folks at Norfolk Southern and the folks at U.S. Pipe, where the train car departed from earlier, should have done their jobs and inspected it.”
The National Transportation Safety Board is now investigating the incident, according to the outlet.
“I really want them to take it seriously. It’s happening over and over again. I’d hate for someone else to lose their loved one,” Fields, 44, told the Daily Mail.
She and Griffin shared a 14-year-old daughter together.
“Walter was a family man, a hard-working man, he loved his family. Our daughter Tatyana is still dealing with this, and she’s going day by day, too,” Fields told the outlet.
She said Griffin loved working with the railway, although he struggled with the long hours, and had been on the job for about six months before the incident.
Norfolk Southern under fire
The lawsuit comes as Norfolk Southern faces litigation following the environmental disaster that ensued after a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio last month. Gallons of toxic chemicals were released into the air, prompting mass evacuations of the small community along the Pennsylvania border.
A total of 1.1 million gallons of water and 15,000 pounds of soil were contaminated.
On Monday, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost filed a suit against Norfolk Southern claiming the Feb 3 derailment was “entirely avoidable” and a result of the company valuing profits over the health and safety of people.
The lengthy, 58-count lawsuit claims the company was negligent in allowing defective trains and train operations to contaminate the state’s natural resources and threaten human and environmental health.
Norfolk Southern has seen a nearly 80% increase in its accident rate over the past decade with 20 derailments since 2015 resulting in chemical discharges, the AG alleges.
Yost also claimed that the local economy has suffered as a result of the crash.
“The citizens of the region have been displaced, their lives interrupted and their businesses shuttered,” the court papers charge.
“Ohio shouldn’t have to bear the tremendous financial burden of Norfolk Southern’s glaring negligence,” Yost said in a statement. “The fallout from this highly preventable incident may continue for years to come, and there’s still so much we don’t know about the long-term effects on our air, water and soil.”
The suit seeks unspecified damages for lost taxes, economic losses, and civil penalties.
Last week, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw was grilled during a hearing before a US Senate Committee for the derailment.
Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown accused the rail company of following “the Wall Street business model: Boost profits by cutting costs at all costs. The consequences for places like East Palestine be damned,” noting that Norfolk Southern had cut 38% of its workforce while spending $3.4 billion on stock buybacks in the past 10 years.
Shaw apologized and said the company has pledged $21 million in assistance for East Palestine alone, along with $7.5 million for communities across the Ohio border in Pennsylvania.
“I am determined to make this right. Norfolk Southern will clean the site safely, thoroughly and with urgency. You have my personal commitment. Norfolk Southern will get the job done and help East Palestine thrive,” he said.
Hours before Shaw’s apology, another Norfolk Southern train derailed in Alabama, although there were no reported leaks.
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