Lawsuits filed in Biloxi crash; Hoffmans, other family members target tour company, railroad and driver
By Kathi Bliss
While the injured continue their journey toward recovery and the families of those killed struggle to find a new normal, the organizers of the tragic bus tour that left four people dead and dozens injured are preparing for a litany of legal battles.
Filed in Dallas County District Court, as of press time on Monday, three suits have been brought against Echo Tours and Charters, the company who owned the bus and organized the tour, as well as Diamond Tours, Inc., Echo’s parent company, CSX Transportation, the railroad which owned the track and train which struck the bus, and “John Doe,” the as-yet unnamed driver of the ill-fated tour.
The first suits, each asking for upwards of a million dollars in damages on behalf of the families of Ken and Peggy Hoffman, were filed late last week, while a third, on behalf of “several passengers of the bus” was filed by Mitchell A. Toups and Gregory K. Evans, East Texas attorneys who have extended family members who were on the bus at the time of the crash.
More lawsuits are expected, as attorneys throughout the state have been engaging social media presence to attract would-be plaintiffs to file against the companies.
“This tragedy should have never happened,” said Larry Wilson, an attorney with Houston’s Lanier Law Firm who specializes in railroad claims and trucking accidents. His firm has been retained to represent the family of Kenneth Hoffman, while San Antonio-based Watts Guerra, LLP, will be representing Peggy Hoffman’s estate in a separate suit. “It’s horrifying that a charter bus would ignore a warning sign and get high-centered on the tracks. It’s a risk that never should have taken place.”
The Hoffman families have declined to make any public statement regarding the suits. Instead, they have chosen to focus on the legacy left behind by two beloved parents, grandparents, educators and pillars of the community.
“We will miss his sweet, gentle soul and her steady level-headedness, which anchored us in the toughest storms,” they said in a written statement last week. “We cannot understand what it means to be in this world without them, but we know they would have us continue doing the very things they’ve always taught us to do: love God and love one another.”
In a briefing last week, National Transportation and Safety Board representative Robert Sumwalt reported that the initial investigation of the crash revealed that the bus driver did not follow the route prescribed by Echo Tours, and instead relied on a GPS system to direct him from the Boomtown Casino, across the peninsula to the tour’s next destination. That route took the bus across the Main Street rail crossing, which is known for a steep approach.
In recent weeks, another soft drink delivery vehicle high-centered at the same crossing, becoming disabled and eventually being struck by a train. No one was injured in that incident, but Sumwalt reported that as many as 17 vehicles have been struck at the crossing since the 1970s.
Last month, the Biloxi City Council opened discussions regarding the closing of several railroad crossings in that city, Caray Grace of WLOX News reported on Feb. 21. A public meeting had been scheduled to discuss the closures later in March.
Grace said the crossings initially identified on Feb. 21 were determined as a result of a study based on traffic and accessibility. At the time, she said, the Main Street crossing was not identified as a possible closure, because of the high traffic volume at the crossing.
However, she noted, that could change, based on information that might come forward as a result of last week’s accident and the resulting investigation.
Opinions vary as to whether maintenance of the approach was the responsibility of the City of Biloxi, or of CSX transportation. Some rail experts indicate that if the tracks existed prior to the road, the maintenance would be the responsibility of the entity, in this case, the city, that build the road. Others state that the railroad is responsible for maintenance within 50 feet either direction of their tracks.
The Post-Register will continue to work with local media in Biloxi to provide additional information on this developing story, as it becomes available.
Services for Ken and Peggy Hoffman were held on Tuesday morning. Their family has requested that memorial donations in their honor be made to the Education Foundation for Lockhart ISD, at 105 S. Colorado St., Lockhart, Texas 78644 or online at foundation4LISD.com.