Norfolk Southern’s flawed response released more than twice the toxics released in the initial derailment, creating a million-pound chemical burn pit that would burn and discharge thick toxic smoke for days causing widespread anxiety, panic, and fear of dire health consequences

On February 20, 2023, Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP, Peiffer Wolf Carr Kane Conway & Wise, LLP, and Meyer Wilson Co., LPA filed a federal class action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio against Norfolk Southern over the February 3, 2023 derailment and toxic spill in East Palestine, Ohio on behalf of certain named individual local residents and business owners as well as a class of all others similarly affected.

Details of the Norfolk Southern Derailment Disaster

On February 3, 2023, at approximately 8:55 p.m., a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, igniting an inferno and casting a toxic cloud of poisonous smoke throughout the surrounding area. In total, thirty-eight railcars left the tracks and an additional twenty railcars were damaged, many carrying dangerous industrial materials. Damage from the train wreck caused many of the railcars to breach, ultimately discharging more than a million pounds of hazardous chemicals into the local air, soil, and water. Fire from the wreckage blanketed the area in billowing smoke. Norfolk Southern failed to immediately report the train wreck as required by law, and did not contact authorities until nearly two hours after the initial derailment, wreck, and toxic discharge.

To make matters worse, heat from the initial blaze increased pressure inside gas-filled railcars, posing the risk of a deadly explosion. This led Norfolk Southern to “vent and burn” vinyl chloride, a powerful cancer-causing gas, from five railcars. Norfolk Southern diverted the vinyl chloride into a hastily excavated trench where it set the chemical ablaze. The fire raged for days, covering local properties in a large plume of thick black smoke and dispersing toxic chemicals for miles. The black smoke billowed into neighborhoods where Plaintiffs and thousands of people live and work, causing many to suffer physical symptoms associated with toxic exposure and widespread anxiety, panic, and fear about potentially dire health consequences.

Prolonged exposure to the hazardous fumes and thick smoke forced Plaintiffs and Class members to sequester themselves inside their homes or to abandon their homes and relocate away from the spread of the toxic pollutants.

The toxic plume shut down local businesses as residents either evacuated or stayed locked inside their homes. The spread of toxic pollutants from the train wreck trespassed onto Plaintiffs’ properties, and interfered with Plaintiffs’ ability to use and enjoy their properties. Plaintiffs and Class members continue to live in the shadow of the toxic train wreck and toxic burn. Hazardous chemicals continue to seep through soils, contaminating groundwater and surrounding properties.

“This derailment caused a massive community poisoning that should never have occurred,” said Lieff Cabraser partner Robert J. Nelson, who represents the plaintiffs in the action and who has represented plaintiffs in toxic exposure cases for many years. “Norfolk Southern failed in its responsibilities to the community both before, during, and after the derailment and spill.  We look forward to getting justice for our clients in federal court.”

The lawsuit alleges that the residential properties have suffered a trespass and nuisance, and will continue to suffer a diminution in value by virtue of their proximity to site of the train wreck, and being located near this environmental disaster. As a result, Plaintiffs and the putative class members suffer and will continue to suffer damages, including decreased property values, damage to their real and personal property, lost wages, loss of business income, and loss of business goodwill.

Relief Sought in the Action

The lawsuit alleges that amidst a history of safety violations, Norfolk Southern in this instance failed to take the proper precautionary and remedial action before and after the derailment and toxic spill. It includes claims for negligence, trespass, private, statutory, and public nuisance, wanton and willful misconduct, and seeks to recover these and other damages by residential property owners and lessees and businesses in close proximity to the train wreck. Plaintiffs also seek injunctive and equitable relief, including testing and cleaning protocols to abate the toxic discharges, as well as the creation of a fund to finance medical monitoring services to screen, prevent, and treat injuries caused by exposure to Norfolk Southern’s toxic discharges.

“This isn’t some abstract faraway problem for the people and businesses of northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. This disaster hit these people hard, but the Steel Valley knows how to hit back,” notes Ashlie Case Sletvold of Peiffer Wolf Carr Kane Conway & Wise, LLP, who, along with the Columbus Ohio law firm Meyer Wilson Co., also represents the plaintiffs in the action. Said David Meyer of the Meyer Wilson firm, “This disaster strikes at the heart of beloved communities, and we are going to proceed as forcefully and expeditiously as possible to get the residents and businesses of East Palestine and surrounding cities the justice and safety they deserve.”

Read a copy of the complaint in the lawsuit. You can use the form on this page to contact a lawyer at Lieff Cabraser about the litigation, or visit our Norfolk Southern derailment and toxic spill case page for more information.


Robert J. Nelson
Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP
415 956-1000

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