By MARYCLAIRE DALE Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A jury on Friday cleared an Amtrak engineer of all charges stemming from a derailment that killed eight people and injured hundreds in Philadelphia in 2015, finding that his operation of the train more than twice the speed limit on a curve did not constitute criminal negligence.
The jury took just over an hour to acquit Brandon Bostian, 38, of causing disaster, manslaughter and reckless endangerment – one count for each injury and death. Amtrak had already settled a civil lawsuit over the accident for $265 million.
The train rounded a curve at about 106 mph, more than double the 50 mph speed limit, before derailing in North Philadelphia.
Bostian’s lawyer described him as a lifelong train enthusiast who had a perfect work record until he was distracted by reports of people throwing rocks in the area just before the crash . He could have been sent to prison for years or even life if convicted, given the high number of charges against him.
“He has been wondering for seven years if he will ever get his life back. Today the jury returned his life,” defense attorney Brian McMonagle said after the verdict. “We’ve said from the start that there was never a crime committed here by Brandon.”
In his closing arguments, McMonagle said the criminal actors in the case were those who threw the rocks at the train ahead. No one has ever been apprehended.
Federal safety investigators concluded that Bostian had lost what they call “situational awareness” on the runway, thinking he had gone past an S-curve and onto a straight line when he accelerated about 65mph to 106mph. In fact, he was in the middle of the S-curve. Investigators found no evidence that he was impaired, fatigued, or using his cellphone at the time.
The key question for the jury was whether Bostian — who no longer works for Amtrak — sped intentionally, knowing the risks.
The case has a long legal history, with judges debating whether Bostian’s actions constituted a crime. Common Pleas Judge Barbara McDermott, who presided over the seven-day trial, questioned whether the evidence was sufficient but said she would consider the matter after returning a verdict to the jury. The point now seems moot.
Prosecutors say Bostian acted with reckless disregard for the safety of his passengers, who were traveling from Washington to New York on Tuesday evening. The train had stopped at Philadelphia’s 30th Street station about 10 minutes earlier and was heading north.
A trial witness, former New York firefighter Charles Gildersleeve, told jurors how he spent two days looking for his brother in hospitals after the crash, only to learn he had died. Robert Gildersleeve was traveling to New York for a work conference after attending his son’s lacrosse practice that evening.
Another witness, Blair Berman, described meeting Bostian amidst the wreckage and asking him to borrow his phone. He didn’t tell her he was driving the train. She asked him where they were, and Bostian told her, specifically, that they were in an area called Franklin Junction.
Prosecutors used this point to argue that Bostian knew where he was when he crashed and should have known the speed limit.
Attorney Tom Kline, who is representing the two witnesses, as well as other Amtrak 188 families, said the verdict does not negate the “public accountability” the lawsuit has brought. The victims eventually heard Bostian’s attorney admit that the engineer had made mistakes, he said.
“It provides some measure of closure to the eight families who lost loved ones and the dozens more who were catastrophically injured by Mr. Bostian’s conduct that day,” Kline said.
Philadelphia’s top prosecutor had declined to pursue criminal charges, but the attorney general’s office later took him back.
“There is no doubt that the excessive speed of the train the defendant was operating resulted in death and injury to its passengers,” the state attorney general’s office said in a statement.
The accident led Congress to increase Amtrak’s previous $200 million limit on individual accident settlements to $295 million.
The jury had begun weighing the charges on Friday morning when a substitute had to step in because a juror had a death in the family. The jury then resumed its deliberations from the beginning.