Amtrak balks over lawsuit payout in Riverbank fatalities

August 22, 2013 

About 10 months ago I wrote about how Stanislaus County had been awarded state funding to install traffic lights at an intersection where six people died after an Amtrak train slammed into their sport utility vehicle in 2007.

The accident happened where Claribel Road crosses Terminal Avenue and the BNSF railroad tracks near Riverbank. And as in many fatal accidents, the families of those killed filed lawsuits in federal court against several parties, including the county and Amtrak.

As part of the story about the traffic lights, I included that the county had settled with the families in January 2011 for $1.15 million. But I could not find any Bee story on whether Amtrak had settled, nor could I find anything when I checked online court records.

So I called Amtrak. A spokeswoman said I would have to file a Freedom of Information Act request for that information.

I filed my request Oct. 4. More than 10 months later, on Aug. 16, Amtrak responded:

"The information you are seeking is considered commercially sensitive and is being withheld pursuant to the commercial privilege of exemption 5 of the FOIA.

"Disclosure of such information would impair Amtrak's ability to negotiate in any future settlement negotiations."

I don't have a problem when businesses won't say how much they paid to settle a lawsuit because it's their money; it didn't come from the taxpayers.

Congress created Amtrak — aka the National Railroad Passenger Corp. — more than 40 years ago. Its board members are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. It is supposed to operate as a for-profit company but relies on federal funding.

Of course, Amtrak's letter said I can appeal its decision. Any bets on how long it would take Amtrak to get back to me?

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or (209) 578-2316.

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