One night seven years ago, Amtrak engineer Jacob Keating lay beaten and bleeding alongside the railroad tracks in West Sacramento, knocked senseless by a crowd of drunken neighborhood gangsters who attacked him when he came down off the train to shoo a trespasser off the tracks.
Today, Keating finds himself labeled by the railroad company as the “sole cause” of his injuries, a rule breaker whose negligence and lack of common sense endangered himself, his crew and his 27 passengers all aboard a late-night Capitol Corridor run.
A Sacramento Superior Court jury will begin hearing evidence Wednesday in a civil lawsuit Keating filed against Amtrak trial in front of Judge Geoffrey A. Goodman.
Five purported members of the Broderick Boys gang were arrested for the attack. Four were tried in Yolo Superior Court and convicted in November 2008 on charges of assault with a deadly weapon on a public transit employee. The three adults in the case were sentenced to terms ranging from eight years and four months to nine years.
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In opening statements on Monday, lawyer Kristoffer S. Mayfield of Oakland said his client, Keating, who is now 42, suffered a severe concussion and had to undergo a spinal surgery as a result of the violence on April 16, 2007. Mayfield said Keating still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and in court papers the lawyer claimed the engineer “is unlikely to return to permanent, full-time employment.”
Mayfield told the jury Keating’s past wage loss amounts to more than $500,000 and that his loss of future earnings will run in the area of $1.5million to $2million. The suit seeks up to $2.5million in lost wages. Keating also is seeking unspecified damages for pain and suffering.
“He was in extreme fear for his life,” said Mayfield, who is representing Keating along with attorney Larry Lockshin of Vallejo. “The medical evidence will show he was beaten within an inch of it.”
Amtrak lawyer B. Clyde Hutchinson of Oakland told jurors Keating knew he was walking into trouble when he stepped onto the darkened tracks about 10:25 p.m. on the night he was beaten.
Hutchinson said Keating saw the youths – drinking two cases of Corona beer and a bottle of vodka they had stolen earlier in the day – beside the tracks and could have called 911 or the West Sacramento police or the Amtrak dispatcher to deal with the trespassing problem.
Instead, Hutchinson said, the engineer chose to confront the problem himself.
“Mr. Keating made a tragic and negligent mistake,” Hutchinson said to the jury. “He left the safety of his train to go out in an area he knew was inhabited by dangerous people.”
The defense said in court papers that Keating’s wage loss should total no more than $408,087.
At the time of the attack, former Capitol Corridor executive director Gene Skoropowski said in an email, “It is the most horrific incident I have seen in my nearly 40 years in the railroad business.”
Keating filed his suit in March 2010 against Amtrak under its official name, the National Railroad Passenger Corp. His complaint charges that the company was liable because it did not provide him with a safe place to work, knew the mile-long stretch of track in West Sacramento was dangerous and failed to properly train him on how to deal with it.
The plaintiff lawyers said in their trial brief that Keating did not call the Amtrak dispatcher about the trespasser because the dispatcher had already told him about the situation as he approached the I Street Bridge. When Keating slowed the train near Fifth Street in West Sacramento, a rock flew through his open window and struck him, according to his lawyers’ court papers.
It was then that Keating stopped the train, climbed down and yelled at the person on the tracks, Mayfield told the jury.
Two other Amtrak employees joined Keating in stepping out of the train door, and within seconds came under fire from a rock attack, the trial brief said. The engineer punched one of the rock throwers, the plaintiffs’ lawyers said, and the fight was on that led to Keating’s hospitalization.
Keating didn’t return to work for nearly 21/2years. A few months after his return, Keating claims somebody along the West Sacramento stretch flashed a red laser pointer into his cab. The March 2010 laser flash is included as a cause of action in the lawsuit.
“The incident lasted only about 10 seconds but it created a total anxiety effect, causing significant stress and causing Keating’s neck to just ‘lock up,’” the plaintiff’s trial brief said.
Keating finished that Sacramento-to-Oakland run but didn’t make the return trip and hasn’t been back to work since.
In their trial brief, the Amtrak lawyers said Keating adopted an ultra-aggressive and “irrational” approach toward dealing with the gang members, compounding his mistake of getting off the train. When the attackers started throwing rocks, Keating could have retreated to the safety of his cab, but instead fired back with the rocks, the brief said. Keating also was the first to throw a punch, the defense lawyers said, and landed as many as seven punches on one of the gangsters before the others struck back with force.
Keating was able to get back onto the train, but decided again to join the battle on the ground, when he sustained his most serious injuries, according to the Amtrak defense team.
By getting off the train in the first place and brawling with the Broderick Boys, Keating “endangered his crew, endangered himself and endangered the passengers on the train,” Hutchinson said in his opening statement. The lawyer said Keating was “the sole cause” of his injuries.
Keating made about $83,000 a year as an engineer when he returned to full-time status in December 2009, and in October 2012 Amtrak offered him a senior analyst’s job for $99,235, the defense lawyers said.
Hutchinson said Keating struggled with anxiety and depression before April 2007, and his condition has worsened due to his failure to go back to work.
“His biggest problem is his isolation,” Hutchinson said.
Keating declined after court Monday to respond to the lawyer’s statements.
Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916)321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.