RIVERSIDE – Motions concerning evidence and witnesses were argued today ahead of a civil trial to resolve claims of negligence against Union Pacific Railroad in connection with the deaths of two women struck by a train in Riverside.
Attorneys for the families of 23-year-old Renee Ammari and 18-year-old Tanya Sayegh, both of San Bernardino, pressed for Riverside County Superior Court Judge John Vineyard to allow them to ask questions about the train conductor’s familiarity with a locomotive’s emergency break, while the defense questioned the relevance of it.
Vineyard granted the plaintiffs’ request to ask the questions, which go to the heart of the lawsuit’s contention that the UPR crew bears responsibility for the fatalities by failing to slow the 86-car train in time to prevent it from smashing into the victims in the predawn hours of Nov. 1, 2007.
Attorneys confirmed to City News Service that jury selection in the case will begin Monday morning.
Ammari and Sayegh were struck after Ammari drove her black 1996 Honda Passport SUV onto tracks crossing Mission Inn Avenue.
According to a coroner’s report, Ammari had a blood-alcohol level that was nearly twice the legal limit to operate a motor vehicle in California at the time of the accident.
The women had been at a Halloween party at Cafe Sevilla in downtown Riverside just before they were killed. According to investigators, they left the party around 1 a.m., heading southeast on Mission Inn Avenue. Ammari turned onto a gravel strip that straddles a pair of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad tracks at Santa Fe Avenue.
According to coroner’s officials, the disoriented Ammari apparently realized her mistake and attempted to make a U-turn on the tracks to get back to Mission Inn, but the SUV became stuck between the tracks and a retaining wall.
Witnesses reported seeing both women outside the vehicle at one point, looking around on the ground.
At 1:15 a.m., a northbound Union Pacific train approached the women’s location, traveling around 35 mph. The train engineer later told investigators that he spotted Ammari’s dark-colored vehicle in the train’s headlight, sounded the horn and applied the brakes.
Coroner’s officials said video from the train’s front camera recorded the image of a woman standing on the passenger side of a vehicle with her hands stretched in front of her chest.
The locomotive knocked the SUV end-over-end into the women. Sayegh was pronounced dead at the scene. Ammari died about five hours later at Riverside Community Hospital.
”Had the crew of the Union Pacific Railroad Company been alert and attentive, as per the rules governing railroad operations, they then would have seen the flashing warning-hazard lights of the plaintiffs’ vehicle and applied the emergency brakes,” the families’ attorney, Ron Makarem, said.
The dead women’s families are seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from Union Pacific.
”We believe our train crew acted responsibly in the unfortunate circumstances in this incident,” UPR spokesman Aaron Hunt recently told CNS.
The families also sued BNSF and the city of Riverside, but those cases were dismissed, according to court records.