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Railroad Lawsuits Cite Many Culprits A Year After Fatal Westchester Crash

The Commerce Street railroad crossing in Valhalla looking east toward the Taconic State Parkway after last February's fatal collision that resulted in six death, two dozen injuries and three dozen lawsuits.
The Commerce Street railroad crossing in Valhalla looking east toward the Taconic State Parkway after last February's fatal collision that resulted in six death, two dozen injuries and three dozen lawsuits. Photo Credit: Jon Craig

VALHALLA, N.Y. -- About three dozen legal actions were initiated in the year following the deadliest train crash in Metro-North history. They may never conclude who was to blame for the Feb. 3, 2015, accident that killed a motorist from Edgemont and five commuters. But the litigation shares a common theme: That the accident was preventable and that it should not be allowed to happen again.

Two public agencies sharing the bulk of the blame for failing to make physical and safety equipment changes at Commerce Street in Valhalla are the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs Metro-North, and the state Department of Transportation.

Howard Hershenhorn, a Manhattan lawyer who last week filed the latest legal action, said, “I can confirm that on behalf of the family of Robert Dirks we filed suit yesterday in the Westchester Supreme Court against Metro-North and the others responsible for this horrible tragedy so that an accident like this never occurs again."

Hershenhorn's complaint is filed on behalf of Dirk's widow and their two young children. Dirk, 36, was from New Castle. Others killed were Ellen Brody, 49, of Edgemont, who was driving a Mercedes SUV that collided with the train a year ago; Bedford Hills residents Eric Vandercar, 53, and Walter Liedtke, 69; Ossining resident Joseph Nadol, 42; and Aditya Tomar, 41, of Danbury, Conn. At least 26 other commuters and two railroad employees were treated for injuries.

The family of Ellen Brody, a mother of three daughters, is among those claiming the Commerce Street crossing is badly designed and didn't offer Brody enough advance warning. Visibility is limited, road markings are barely visible at night and there are no audible warnings at the crossing, which also was surrounded by snow piles that night.

Brody was driving in stop-and-go traffic at 6:26 p.m. when the rail crossing gate came down on the rear of her SUV. After stepping out to inspect what had happened, she drove forward into the path of the northbound train, a witness from Yorktown Heights said. The SUV caught fire and a dozen parts of the electrified third rail broke loose, piercing Brody's car and the first two train cars, engulfing them in flames.

On Monday, Metro-North detailed its efforts t o improve safety at Commerce Street and other rail crossings

According to police and media accounts, Brody and other motorists had been detoured across the tracks after the Taconic State Parkway was closed at Lakeview Avenue at 5:25 p.m. due to a two-car crash.

Federal investigators believe Brody was unaware how close her car was to the tracks as she inched along in bumper-to-bumper traffic slowed by the signal on the Taconic -- also a target of blame in several lawsuits. Another complaint cites the lack of an "efficient and safe detour plan for accidents."

Philip Russotti, a Manhattan attorney representing Alan Brody, said the lack of full crossing gates across the entire width of Commerce Street may have contributed to Ellen Brody not realizing she was so close to the tracks.

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