Kaprun ski lawsuit may open to Austrians
SALZBURG, Austria — An American lawyer charged with filing a class-action lawsuit against a handful of European and American corporations told dozens of Austrians Saturday that they would likely get the chance to participate.
Ed Fagan, a New Jersey lawyer representing the relatives of victims of a ski cable car disaster in Kaprun on Nov. 11, 2000, met with family members and friends of some of the 155 victims during a meeting to update those involved in the process.
“There is a case,” he said. “You can be a part of it. …” He also said there is enough potential settlement money available from the insurance policies of the companies cited in the U.S. case to go around.
Fagan said he was to appear Monday before an Austrian court that’s currently hearing charges against more than a dozen Austrians who either installed parts on the tram or were involved in its operation.
None of those charged in the criminal case in Austria are named in the class-action suit that was filed in New York. That suit, filed in a federal district court in New York, is charging the corporations that had roles in building the train or the tunnel in which it caught fire.
Eight Americans based in military communities in Germany were among those killed when the train somehow caught fire in the tunnel while on the way up the mountain to the ski slopes. Hundreds of Americans from a handful of ski clubs were in the area during the day and dozens narrowly avoided getting on the train and were left waiting for the next one, which never came.
Maj. Michael C. Goodridge, 36, and his family — his wife, Jennifer, 35, and sons Kyle, 5, and Michael, 7 — did get on the train and died in the fire. So did Paul A. Filkil, 46, and his son Ben, 15, and 1st Lt. Erich R. Kern, 25, and 2nd Lt. Carrie L. Baker, 23.
Other victims came from countries including Japan, Slovenia, the Netherlands and Germany. Ten of the 12 people who managed to escape the train and survive were from Vilseck, Germany. The other two were Austrians. And more victims came from Austria than any other country.
Relatives of some of those victims gathered at the meeting Saturday to hear Fagan provide updates on the case.
He said a U.S. federal judge, Shira A. Scheindlin, has already determined that there can be a case in the States. What’s still to be determined is who will actually qualify to be a part of the case.
John Habblett, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and father of Jennifer Good-ridge, has been a leading force behind the case, Habblett v. Siemens A.G. Siemens, which built parts in the train operation, is one of the companies the suit targets.
The suit essentially argues that a series of preventable mistakes led to the large loss of life during the disaster.
Fagan has been a controversial figure in local media reports. He has been accused by some of orchestrating the suit because he needs money and is bankrupt and faces a potential jail term or fine because he reportedly is not certified to practice law in Austria. He’s also been accused by some of manufacturing or hiding evidence in the case. On Saturday, he denied the money problems and the evidence charges, and said he would fight the certification issue.
Fagan has been a vocal critic of the ongoing investigation in Austria. He said Saturday the investigation started off on the wrong foot almost immediately when authorities failed to secure the site and crucial evidence that could have helped determine the cause of the disaster. He said the train was supposed to be equipped with a recording device and that the electrical system that powered the train also had a monitoring system. Fagan alleges that authorities acted too slowly in trying to obtain those records and they no longer appear to exist.
“You’re never, ever going to get to the truth,” he told family members Saturday. “You’ll get a good story. But unless somebody stands up and says, ‘Here’s the tape and here’s the computer records,’ you’re not going to know.”
Fagan said he planned to tell the Austrian court on Monday that victims’ families are not happy with the investigation and to provide a briefing on the case in New York. He said it’s likely that the victims’ families, whom he and about 20 lawyers in several countries represent, would soon file a suit in Austria against the government, alleging that the investigation into the disaster has been botched.