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Amtrak Wins Subpoena in Train-Death Case

Medical Records of Decedent May Shed Light on Mental State, Judge Rules

Paul Wellman (file)

Medical and mental health records for Connor O’Keefe, the Santa Barbara High School senior killed by a train in March 2017, must be turned over to Amtrak in a wrongful death lawsuit against the passenger rail service, Judge Colleen Sterne ruled this week. O’Keefe’s parents sued Amtrak, Caltrans, and the County of Santa Barbara in March 2018, alleging all three failed to provide adequate signage, access restrictions, and warnings for people crossing the tracks to and from the beach near Fernald Point Lane in Montecito, where O’Keefe was killed. Amtrak in turn subpoenaed O’Keefe’s records, arguing they are “directly relevant to why he decided to walk on the railroad tracks at the time of the fatal incident, in the path of a clearly visible and audible train.”

That Saturday afternoon, according to the county coroner report, O’Keefe was with friends when he went back to the car alone to get his camera, walking northbound on one side of the tracks while talking on his cell phone. The northbound train was travelling approximately 50 miles per hour near Sheffield Drive and struck O’Keefe from behind. The coroner report ruled the death an accident. In their lawsuit, attorneys for O’Keefe’s parents claimed that train engineer Gavin Todd was not properly trained to blow the horn and slow down as he rounded the bend, an area they described as “a concealed trap” without proper fencing. A week after O’Keefe was killed, more than 800 people filled The Marjorie Luke Theatre to celebrate his life. He was remembered as a talented water polo player with a fun-loving personality.

Connor O’Keefe
Courtesy Photo

Amtrak, however, has argued there’s reason to believe O’Keefe’s death may have been self-inflicted. The coroner report detailed how the night before the incident, O’Keefe called a friend and told him he was depressed, that he wanted to kill himself, and he was planning to jump off a nearby bridge. The friend met O’Keefe at the bridge and stopped him from jumping, according to the report. When O’Keefe returned to his mother’s house, he again contemplated suicide and rummaged through her pill bottles “but got scared and decided not to consume any of the pills.”

“While plaintiffs allege that Amtrak’s negligent operation of the train and/or failure to sound the horn and apply the brakes caused the fatal incident,” Sterne states in her ruling to release O’Keefe’s records, “the front-mounted video camera on the locomotive recorded the train’s bell ringing and the engineer sounding the horn as soon as he saw the decedent walking on the railroad tracks. The decedent apparently made no attempt to move off the tracks.” Sterne said the records ― normally protected by doctor-patient confidentiality laws ― “are directly relevant to the defenses in the case.” She said they’d reveal whether O’Keefe suffered from any physical medical conditions that prevented him from seeing, hearing, or reacting to the train, and if his mental state may have contributed to him not moving off the tracks. The lawsuit will be back in front of Strene on April 29 for a case management conference.

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