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Tennessee Families Allege CSX Could Have Prevented Tidal Wave That Killed 22, Including Seven Children

CSX Knew Risks of Not Maintaining Underpass and Failed to Inspect it For Debris. Company Neglected To Warn City Officials as Millions of Gallons of Water Accumulated During Seven Hour Period on Day of Fatal Tidal Wave.

WAVERLY, TN–Ten families today accused CSX Transportation, the leading railroad company in North America, of failing to prevent the tidal wave that ripped through Waverly last year, killing 22 people including seven children, some as young as seven months old.

On August 21st of last year, what was called a 1000-year rain event quickly transformed the rural town’s streets into rapids with such force that automobiles were carried away and homes were pushed off their foundations. But, as detailed in the lawsuit, the tidal wave that destroyed so many lives was entirely preventable: CSX’s failure to inspect and clean the railroad levee beneath its elevated tracks, even though historic rainfall had been predicted for days, created an unintended dam. The rain exerted growing pressure on the CSX-made dam until the debris suddenly gave way, unleashing a torrent of millions of gallons of water at Trace Creek, located approximately one mile northeast of the center of Waverly.

“These 22 individuals, seven of which were children, didn’t die because it rained; they died because of CSX’s alleged negligence and calculated decision to prioritize profits over safety,” said Peter J. Flowers, Partner at Meyers & Flowers. “While CSX found time to institute a suspension of rail service in order to protect its train cars, the company did not take the time to warn city officials of the looming danger its uncleared debris posed to the residents of Waverly.”

Historic rainfalls have long plagued Middle Tennessee in recent years, but none have led to a catastrophe like the one that killed:

  • 7-month old twins who were ripped from their father’s arms;
  • A 7-year old girl whose mother watched her get swept away by the strong currents;
  • A husband whose wife watched helplessly as he drowned;
  • A mother of five whose child saw her body unearthed from a pile of debris;
  • Along with several others that drowned while attempting to rescue their neighbors, among others.

“When a seven foot tidal wave came bursting into my home last August, I frantically grabbed my four children but the forceful waves quickly ripped them from my arms. I was able to find my two older kids, who were swimming against the current in a fight for their lives, but my 7-month old twins did not make it. Every day since, I’ve been wracked with guilt that I couldn’t protect them, but I believe that guilt should rest with CSX,” said Matthew Rigney, whose 7-month-old twins drowned.

As early as Thursday, August 19, 2021, meteorologists were forecasting extremely

heavy rain to hit the Middle Tennessee area two days later. CSX could have but did not use that time to clear accumulated debris beneath its elevated tracks, greatly reducing the risk of harm posed by the dangerous conditions on its property. As predicted, heavy rain began falling on Saturday morning, quickly exacerbating hazardous conditions. For example, CSX learned that a portion of its tracks located near McEwen gave way, flooding portions of Highway 70. Rather than alerting Waverly city officials about the dangerous artificial lake forming on its private property, CSX neglected to attend to that issue but immediately acted to protect its own financial interests by stopping all trains through Humphreys County after the first track embankment failure.

As the rain continued to fall in the hours following the first embankment failure, water accumulated behind the underpass where CSX’s railroad bridge crossed Trace Creek because the underpass was clogged with debris. Due to the plugging of the underpass, a temporary lake formed behind the CSX-caused dam created by the earthen levee which served as the railbed where the Trace Creek railway crossed. Eventually, the pressure on the CSX railbed continued to increase until the dam gave way. At no point during the hours before the tidal wave was unleashed did CSX warn those living downstream in Waverly.

Michelle Feliciano woke up that Saturday morning to rising water outside her window. She asked her sister, who lived nearby, to come rescue her and her 7- year old daughter, Lucy Connor. But when her sister got there just 10 minutes later, water had risen past the windows of Michelle’s home, forcing the walls to collapse. The pressure from the currents swept her 7-year old daughter out of the crumbling house and into the river that had formed. Having just watched her daughter drown, Ms. Feliciano was forced to cling to a tree for several hours as the floods continued to surge.

Filed today in the Circuit Court for Humphreys County, Tennessee, the lawsuit seeks to hold CSX accountable for the deaths of 22 residents of Waverly and the devastation inflicted upon their community. Specifically, the case brings claims for wrongful death, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and general negligence. Along with CSX, the lawsuit names James Hughey as a Co-defendant, as he owned property adjacent to the CSX Levee (the “Hughey Property”).

The Plaintiffs are represented by Peter J. Meyers of Meyers & Flowers, along with Timothy Potter and Andrew Mills of Reynolds, Potter, Ragan & Vandivort, PLC, a Tennessee-based law firm, and Richard Newsome of Florida-based Newsome & Melton.