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Rail Runner facing possible lawsuit after woman killed in July crash

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The family of a woman who died in July after her car was struck by a Rail Runner train is considering filing a wrongful death lawsuit.

Meanwhile, an autopsy report released to the Journal reveals that Nicole Lopez, 27, had THC in her system, when she died.

Lopez was driving east on Candelaria near Second when her car went under a lowering crossing guard and stopped on the railroad tracks. An accident report detailing the incident says she was treated by paramedics but died on scene after the southbound commuter train struck her vehicle.

Witnesses to the crash, including the driver of the car behind Lopez, told police they heard her brakes lock up and saw her car skid onto the tracks just as the crossing guard arm was lowering. The footage from on-train cameras used to investigate incidents like this was lost when the hard drive was damaged on impact.

Augusta Meyers, a spokeswoman for the Rio Metro Regional Transit District, which operates the commuter train, said there are six cameras on each train.

“It’s like the black box of an airplane basically – it shows braking, speed, whistle blowing … basically everything the engineer does,” Meyers said.

The hard drive was in a storage area in the nose of the train, and when the train hit Lopez’s car, Meyers said it stopped working.

She said the lights and bells at the crossing are activated 25 seconds before the train arrives and the arms start lowering about 20 seconds prior to the train coming through. The Federal Railroad Administration requires the arms start lowering at least 15 seconds before the train comes through.

But without the video, there is no way to know how long Lopez was on the tracks before the collision.

The family’s lawyer, Mark Fine, said that is troubling.

“If the responsible agencies are unable to produce this data and unable to produce video, how are they ensuring that these crossings are safe,” he said.

Fine said he filed a request to look at data surrounding the timing of the lowering crossing arms and the passing of the train through the intersection.

“We are hearing that the gate at that location may be closing too close in time to the approach of the train,” he said. “We are contemplating a wrongful death action but working to gather more information first.”

Autopsy and toxicology reports obtained by the Journal state Lopez had “no prior suicidal ideation.”

The autopsy report lists Lopez’s cause of death as blunt trauma.

The toxicology report shows she had 34 nanograms per milliliter of Carboxy THC, which is commonly found in marijuana cigarettes, in her blood at the time of death.

Her mother, Natalie Rodriguez-Lopez, said Lopez used marijuana for carpal tunnel pain in her hands, but did not have a medical use card.

Rail Runner trains have struck and killed 19 people since they started operating in 2006.

The commuter train that killed Lopez was travelling about 50 mph when it hit her vehicle, pushing it off the tracks and into trees and bushes a few yards away, according to an accident report. Meyers said the speed is standard for that area. None of the 91 passengers on board the train were injured.

Meyers said that earlier this month more durable hard drives were installed on all cab cars and locomotives.

“We should never have this problem again,” she said.

Rodriguez-Lopez said she used to help her daughter practice Spanish songs to sing with her dad’s band when Lopez was younger.

“Now when I hear those Spanish songs … they just bring so many memories,” she said.