Central Valley

Families sue over rail-car collision that left 6 dead in Riverbank

RIVERBANK -- Family members of six people killed in a 2007 train accident near Riverbank have filed a lawsuit claiming that the accident was the result of dangerous conditions that could have been prevented.

Plaintiffs say Riverbank and Modesto, Stanislaus County, Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad and Amtrak are to blame for the accident. Plaintiffs' lawyers accuse the cities, county and railroads of failing to properly maintain the crossing at Terminal Avenue and Claribel Road, where an Amtrak train smashed into an SUV loaded with passengers, including three small children, on May 8, 2007. Plaintiffs claim the crossing is hazardous because it's poorly marked. They're seeking monetary compensation for losses suffered in the accident.

The complaint, filed in Stanislaus County Superior Court last year, is in U.S. District Court in Fresno.

Defendants deny the allegations. Amtrak filed a lawsuit against plaintiff Lucio Rodriguez, whose wife and children were killed in the accident. Amtrak says Rodriguez's wife, Maricruz Corral, who was driving, was at fault.

The accident happened about 2 p.m., as Corral was driving a 2001 Geo Tracker east on Claribel Road. Corral stopped at a stop sign at the tracks with the front end of the Tracker sticking over the track's first rail, witnesses said.

Tried to back up, panicked

As an Amtrak train approached the crossing, Corral tried to back up, witnesses told authorities. She couldn't because there were at least two cars behind her. The arm of the crossing gate came down on Corral's windshield, but it sprang back up, as it is designed to do. Corral apparently panicked and pulled forward onto the tracks into the path of the 79 mph train, California Highway Patrol investigators said.

Rodriguez's attorneys contend Corral drove forward because she was trying to get out of the way of the oncoming train. The couple's two boys, Ivan, 5, and Tony, 3, were killed in the crash. The other victims were a 39-year-old Modesto woman, her 5-year-old son, and 19-year-old niece.

The state's Public Utilities Commission, which regulates railroads, investigated the accident. The PUC recommended that the county remove the eastbound stop sign at the tracks to prevent future accidents. Attorneys for Corral's husband say local authorities have ignored the PUC's recommendations.

Robert Maestas, who lives next door to the accident site, said he believes the crossing is safe. "Lights flash, bells go off, then the train comes," said Maestas. "To me, it's safe. Unfortunately, I think (Corral) misjudged what she was doing."

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at lalbrecht@modbee.com or 578-2378.