Railroad blames derailment on Waterloo man killed by train and farm that employed him
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
A railroad company is blaming a 23-year-old Waterloo man who was hit and killed by a train, as well as the farm that employed him, for a derailment in Monroe County four years ago.
Union Pacific Railroad Co. filed a federal civil lawsuit against Glendell H Farms in August. It argues that the farm’s owners are responsible for damages to its locomotives, railcars, signals and tracks due to the actions of their hired hand, the late Jonah Matthews.
Matthews was talking on a cellphone at the time of the crash and failed to reduce the speed of his tractor or look out for trains, according to the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in East St. Louis.
“Union Pacific prays for judgment against Defendants in an amount in excess of $3,636,000, and for whatever other relief the Court deems just,” it states.
David A. Nester, a St. Louis attorney who represents Glendell owners Kenneth Hartman Jr., Anita Hartman and Joann Hartman, filed an answer in September. It denies many of the complaint’s allegations.
“We think (the derailment occurred) because of the way they loaded the cars,” Nester said Friday, noting that one engine and about 10 railcars left the tracks after the train hit Matthews.
It’s the second civil lawsuit filed over the crash, which occurred on June 14, 2019, in a farm field southwest of Fults.
Two years ago, Matthews’ father, David, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the railroad, the farm and the Hartmans in St. Clair County Circuit Court. A jury trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 12, 2024.
Nester, who represents the Hartmans in both lawsuits, said he has advised them not to speak to the media during litigation. He called the train accident a “terrible tragedy.”
“Jonah Matthews was like a son to the farm,” Nester said. “He’d been working for Mr. Hartman for quite a while.”
Riley Caroline Mendoza, a Chicago attorney who represents Union Pacific in the property-damage lawsuit, declined to comment. She referred questions to the railroad company’s media-relations department, which didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Troy E. Walton, an Edwardsville attorney for the Matthews family in the wrongful-death lawsuit, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Matthews helping to plant corn
The death of Jonah Matthews prompted an outpouring of community support for his father, mother Debra and five brothers. The family operates Deer Creek Farm in rural Monroe County, where he raised cattle.
On the day of the accident, Matthews was helping the Hartmans replant corn after their original crop got flooded. He approached the double-track railroad crossing with one train going north and another going south, his father told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the time.
“(Jonah) stopped for the first one and didn’t see the second one,” David Matthews was quoted as saying.
The accident occurred about 8 p.m. on a Friday. Jonah Matthews was pronounced dead at the scene by Monroe County Coroner Bob Hill. Illinois State Police investigators interviewed several witnesses, including the Union Pacific engineer, Lance Pugh.
The ISP report reached the following conclusions based on observations at the scene and witness interviews:
- The railroad tracks were elevated at the crossing, which had signs but no cross bars or lighting.
- The freight train was traveling southeast at 48 to 49 mph in a zone with a speed limit of 70 mph.
- The train was 9,928 feet long with three locomotives, 17 laden cars and 145 empty cars.
- The John Deere tractor with an enclosed cab was headed southwest on Fults Road, pulling a six-row planter.
- Pugh failed to check the crossing in advance but applied emergency brakes when he saw Matthews and blew an air horn to warn him.
- Matthews was talking on a cellphone to Glendell employee Zachary Eagan when the crash occurred, and Eagan heard it.
- Eagan had called Matthews to tell him that he had left his wallet in a tractor that Eagan was driving.
- A northwest-bound train cleared the crossing about two minutes and 30 seconds before the accident.
“At no time on the video is the John Deere stationary,” ISP Trooper Ray Sutton wrote in the report. “The Tractor is in constant motion as it approaches the crossing, passes the stop sign, and is impacted with the train.”
Toxicology tests showed that Matthews’ body contained no substances that would cause impairment, according to the report.
Both sides claim negligence
Union Pacific Railroad Co. calls the owners of Glendell H Farms “negligent” in its federal property-damage lawsuit and argues that they had “the right to control the manner by which Jonah Matthews performed his work.”
The complaint states that Matthews was talking on a cellphone while operating heavy machinery and failed to stop, reduce speed or “exercise reasonable lookout” for an oncoming train when he approached the tracks.
The complaint also alleges that the Hartmans failed to properly train employees on “safe passage of railroad tracks” and allowed “unsafe work practices” such as cellphone use.
In its answer, Glendell denies many of the complaint’s allegations.
“(The railroad) negligently and carelessly, improperly loaded the train with heavy, loaded rail cars to the rear of the train which caused the train to derail and cause an alleged property damage,” the answer stated.
On Sept. 26, U.S. District Judge Stephen P. McGlynn issued an order sending the case into the court’s mandatory mediation program.
The wrongful-death lawsuit filed by David Matthews in St. Clair County Circuit Court names Glendell, its owners, Union Pacific and its parent company as defendants and alleges safety issues related to the railroad crossing and farm practices.
The complaint asks for more than $50,000 in damages for each of five counts. That’s the maximum that can be sought in filings under jurisdictional limits and less than what attorneys will argue that the family is due, attorney Walton told the BND in 2021.
“What we’re going to ask is for the family to be fairly and reasonably compensated for the very tragic and avoidable loss of their son and brother, as determined by a jury of their peers,” he said.
The complaint states that the crossing had no gates or arms that went down or signal lights that warned drivers of approaching trains and that the steep grade of the road leading up to it made it difficult for people traveling west to get a clear view.
The complaint also argues that Union Pacific land northeast of the crossing had overgrown vegetation that would obstruct a driver’s line of sight to southbound trains.
In regard to Glendell, the farm’s owners failed to meet their obligation to provide a “reasonably safe work environment,” according to the lawsuit.
Teri Maddox is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.