Family of AirTrain victim plans to sue

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The family of the Springfield Gardens man who was killed during a test of the AirTrain at Kennedy Airport in September said he was a customer service representative and did not have the proper training to operate the train, the lawyer preparing a civil lawsuit on the family’s behalf said.

Kelvin DeBourgh, 23, should not have been in the vehicle during the trial runs and his family wants to know why he was, said attorney Paul Weitz, who filed a $50 million notice of claim against the Port Authority in the family’s name.

“It comes down to gross negligence,” Weitz said. “The family is obviously very angry and still wants answers as to what [the PA] were doing.”

A notice of claim alerts a government agency that a suit is to be filed against it.

The AirTrain light rail system, the $1.9 billion project to connect Kennedy Airport to dozens of subway, bus and Long Island Rail Road lines in Howard Beach and downtown Jamaica, is designed to be operated automatically by a computer, but DeBourgh was operating the train manually when it crashed Sept. 27. DeBourgh was killed when some 16,000 pounds of unsecured ballast weight shifted and crushed him as it forced the car he was in to derail.

The AirTrain was scheduled to begin runs to Howard Beach by the end of last year and to Jamaica this spring, but those plans have been suspended while the National Transportation Safety Board conducts an investigation into what role the weights and the speed played in the crash.

The governor that limits the maximum speed was disabled, allowing the train to take the curve at about 55 mph rather than adhering to the 25 mph limit for that section of the track, he said.

“We’re still puzzled about what exactly they were trying to accomplish with that test,” he said. “It appears to be a test with a severe risk factor and no real upside. This was a test that was going to hurt somebody.”

The Port Authority declined to comment on the pending litigation.

The notice of claim was served on the Port Authority Dec. 10, said PA spokesman Pasquale DiFulco. The actual civil suit is expected to be filed within the next few months, Weitz said.

Bombardier, which manufactured the train cars and employed DeBourgh, is also likely to be named in the suit.

A spokeswoman for the Quebec-based transportation giant did not return phone calls seeking comment on the possible suit.

Co-defendants may also include construction companies that worked on the system and an independent safety consultant that may have been employed by the PA, Weitz said.

The suit will also help DeBourgh’s family discover the truth about his death, their attorney said.

“We’re going to find out what went wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else,” Weitz said.

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at, or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 138.

Updated 10:26 am, October 12, 2011
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