Local family law firm joins with national class-action firm to file new class-action lawsuit against freight railroad company seeking damages for individuals and businesses harmed by environmental catastrophe
Attorneys at Youngstown, Ohio area law firm Johnson and Johnson and co-counsel firm, Hagens Berman, yesterday filed a class-action lawsuit seeking restitution from Norfolk Southern Corp., the freight railroad company behind the disastrous Feb. 3, 2023, train derailment and subsequent fire in East Palestine, Ohio.
The lawsuit, which was filed with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Eastern Division in Youngstown, Ohio, seeks to hold Norfolk Southern accountable to residents through monetary damages, the establishment of testing and cleaning protocols and the creation of a medical monitoring fund. It seeks to recover damages on behalf of all injured businesses and residents/individuals located within 30 miles of the derailment. The lawsuit also requests injunctive relief in the form of oversight to Norfolk Southern’s safety and compliance programs.
The case brings claims of public nuisance, which is the same legal strategy Hagens Berman used to secure a settlement from tobacco companies on behalf of the state of Ohio in 1998. That settlement in its entirety is the largest in history.
According to reports, at least eleven of the derailed train cars contained highly toxic raw chemicals, and in the days following the crash, residents reported dizziness, coughing, chest pain, shortness of breath and eye irritation, all of which are symptoms of exposure to the chemicals which the derailment unleashed on the area. Residents of the area were forced to evacuate their homes and businesses.
Residents of East Palestine, upon returning to their homes, reported a strange odor hanging over the town. Many have also reported eye irritation and other symptoms associated with vinyl chloride and other toxic chemical exposure. One of the proposed class representatives in the case was struck with a sudden and unprecedented bout of dizziness while walking through his living room the day after the derailment. Since then, this father of two and grandfather has experienced intense coughing fits, sharp head pain and shortness of breath.
“This happened in our backyard, to our friends, neighbors and clients. We are committed to helping our community recover,” said Nils Johnson, Jr. of Johnson and Johnson law firm, the attorney serving as co-counsel representing residents. “The sheer scale of the destruction is staggering. The true extent of the damage may not reveal itself for years to come. Norfolk Southern needs to take responsibility now and provide the people of East Palestine and Columbiana County with the resources they need for a healthy future.”
The legal team joins Johnson and Johnson’s local presence and know-how with litigation powerhouse Hagens Berman, which successfully represented the state of Ohio in public nuisance litigation against Big Tobacco, which resulted in a total $260 billion settlement among multiple states represented. Hagens Berman has also represented the state of Ohio in lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies for their role in the opioid epidemic.
How the Catastrophe Unfolded
Attorneys say that following the crash, Norfolk Southern violated federal law when it failed to immediately report the derailment, despite the urgent threat posed by the highly toxic chemicals spewing from the wreckage and a fire that was large enough to be detected by weather radar approximately 50 miles away in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The company did not make a report until two hours after the crash.
“Those first two hours following the crash were critical,” said Johnson. “Norfolk Southern wasted the chance it had to make a timely report, only intensifying the damage.”
At least five of the derailed cars transported more than a million pounds of vinyl chloride, a potent carcinogen linked to numerous deadly cancers, and as the fire continued, pressure mounted within the cars containing the toxin. The cars were equipped with emergency release valves to prevent explosions, but these malfunctioned due to poor maintenance, the lawsuit alleges.
Norfolk Southern cleanup crews performed a “controlled release” on Feb. 6, 2023, which, according to attorneys, consisted of blowing holes in the train cars and dumping their carcinogenic contents into a nearby ditch, where they were subsequently ignited. Burning vinyl chloride releases a host of toxic chemicals, including phosgene gas, which was deployed as a chemical warfare agent during World War I and is banned by the Geneva Convention.
“Norfolk Southern’s misguided cleanup effort unleashed a chemical warfare agent on the residents of East Palestine,” said Johnson. “The company’s negligence didn’t just lead to this tragic disaster, it amplified the fallout considerably, and Norfolk Southern’s delayed response and eventual actions only added fuel to this fire.”
In the days following the derailment, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources reported over 3,500 fish dead in the waterways surrounding the crash site. Reports of local livestock and pets sickening and dying proliferated.
The lawsuit seeks monetary compensation for area residents for decreased property values, property damage, lost wages and medical monitoring expenses they have suffered or will suffer in future due to the crash. The complaint alleges that Norfolk Southern’s negligence in transporting these toxic chemicals led to environmental, property and personal damage, and also brings claims of nuisance, trespass and strict liability.
About Johnson and Johnson
Johnson and Johnson is a multigenerational family law firm founded in Youngstown, OH in 1921. The firm serves clients in Mahoning County, Columbiana County, and across the state. Ohio residents and businesses have trusted Johnson and Johnson’s legal advice for over a century. The firm provides a broad range of legal services, including oil and gas law, environmental law, family law, and business and civil litigation.
Hagens Berman is a global plaintiffs’ rights complex litigation law firm with a tenacious drive for achieving real results for those harmed by corporate negligence and fraud. Since its founding in 1993, the firm’s determination has earned it numerous national accolades, awards and titles of “Most Feared Plaintiff’s Firm,” MVPs and Trailblazers of class-action law. More about the law firm and its successes can be found at www.hbsslaw.com. Follow the firm for updates and news at @ClassActionLaw.