NEW YORK — While the Metro-North Railroad is already getting hit with multimillion-dollar civil claims over a deadly commuter train derailment, prosecutors will face tough choices when deciding whether to bring criminal charges against the train’s engineer, who told investigators he nodded or fell into a daze at the controls.
Legal experts say drowsy driving isn’t necessarily a crime, and it can be tough to prosecute drivers who nod off unless there are extra factors at play, such as drug use or brazen disregard for passenger safety. The prosecutor’s office investigating the engineer recently failed to convict a bus driver of manslaughter in a 2011 crash that killed more than a dozen passengers, in part because his drowsiness wasn’t accompanied by any such factors.
“There’s a sentiment that when something terrible happens, you have to hold someone accountable criminally — that’s not always the case,” said attorney Andrew Abramson, who represented a Staten Island Ferry pilot sentenced to 18 months in prison following a deadly wreck in 2003. “Sometimes there is a tragedy, and it’s really a matter for the civil courts.”
Federal and city investigators are gathering information about Sunday’s train accident, which killed four people and injured more than 60, and likely will spend months analyzing the conduct of engineer William Rockefeller.
National Transportation Safety Board officials have said the train derailed in the Bronx after hitting a curve at 82 mph — far faster than the 30 mph speed limit.