CTA facing lawsuits over Blue Line crash

Injured passengers contend negligence caused derailment

March 26, 2014

AP/File
A derailed Chicago Transit Authority train car rests on an escalator at the O'Hare Airport station early Monday, March 24, 2014, in Chicago. More than 30 people were injured after the eight-car train plowed across a platform and scaled the escalator at the underground station.

Two women who say they were hurt in Monday’s O’Hare station train crash have filed lawsuits against the Chicago Transit Authority. Attorneys say there are more lawsuits to come.

The women both work in O’Hare International Airport and were passengers on the CTA Blue Line train that jumped the tracks and plowed up an escalator at the airport station. Both claim they suffered debilitating injuries in the accident, which occurred early Monday morning.

Both suits were filed in Cook County court and the plaintiffs demand more than $50,000 in damages.

Related: Leaked video appears to show Blue Line train derailment

Jerry Latherow, the attorney for plaintiff Niakesha Thomas, said Thomas was on her way to work at Hudson’s News Stand in the airport when the train crashed.

The lawyer said Thomas cannot walk right now because of her injuries.

“She’s a sole bread-winner, she has a 1-year-old baby. She is not going to be able to work, we don’t know how long it’s going to be before she gets back to work. But she needs to do what she can to protect herself and her baby,” Latherow said.

He said Thomas suffered injuries to her hips and back.

The lawsuit alleges the crash was caused by a combination of operator error and failures by the CTA to maintain the tracks and train equipment.

Federal officials say the train operator admitted that she “dozed off" before the accident.

National Transportation Safety Board investigator Ted Turpin said the woman had been working as an operator for about two months and acknowledged she had previously fallen asleep on the job in February, when her train partially missed a station.

"She did admit that she dozed off prior to entering the station," Turpin said of the operator during a briefing Wednesday. "She did not awake until the train hit."

He said the woman, who was cooperating with the investigation, often worked an erratic schedule, filling in for other CTA employees.

"Her hours would vary every day," he said.

Turpin said the NTSB is investigating the woman's training, scheduling, and disciplinary history.

Latherow said it is “very alarming” that the transit agency allowed someone who had fallen asleep at the helm before to operate another train.

“She’d only been working as an … operator for 60 days … and here she’s fallen asleep what comes out to once a month now,” Latherow said. “And this is very alarming, and you wonder who is calling the shots? Who is letting somebody like this continue to operate a train, which is deadly?”

Latherow said an aim of the suit is to force change at the CTA -- including altering the agency’s hiring policies and fixing the train’s braking system.

A CTA spokeswoman said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

The second lawsuit was filed by 23-year-old Dalila Jefferson, a security officer who also was on her way to work at the airport.

Her attorneys said she was preparing to get off the first car of the train when she was "catapulted forward" as the car jumped the track and came to rest partway up an escalator.

Attorneys said Jefferson broke her foot and suffered neck and back injuries.

More than 30 people were hurt during the crash, which occurred around 3 a.m. Monday. None of the injuries was life-threatening.

Nonetheless, Latherow predicts many more lawsuits. He said his firm is already preparing another suit against the CTA, this one brought by a Transportation Security Administration worker who was hurt on her way to work.

Turpin said the crash caused about $6 million worth of damage.

Patrick Smith is a WBEZ reporter and producer. Follow him @pksmid