A Pennsylvania judge said the derailment, which killed eight people and injured roughly 200 more, appeared to have been an accident.
A Pennsylvania judge on Tuesday dismissed involuntary manslaughter charges against an Amtrak engineer who was driving a train that derailed in Philadelphia in 2015, killing eight people. The judge said the episode appeared to be an accident and not the result of criminal negligence.
The judge, Thomas F. Gehret of Philadelphia Municipal Court, said evidence presented by prosecutors led him to conclude that the engineer, Brandon Bostian, 34, bore no criminal responsibility for the derailment.
He said it was “more likely an accident than criminal negligence,” according to The Associated Press. The judge also dismissed charges of reckless endangerment and causing or risking a catastrophe.
Mr. Bostian was driving a Washington-to-New York train on May 12, 2015, when he accelerated to a speed of 106 miles per hour as the train entered a curved section of track whose designated speed was less than half that. The train careered off the track in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Philadelphia. In addition to the deaths, more than 200 people were injured.
The charges were filed in May by Attorney General Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, who brought the case two years to the day after the derailment and shortly before the statute of limitations was thought to expire.
The case took a circuitous path to the courtroom. The district attorney had declined to charge Mr. Bostian with a crime and the case was pursued by the attorney general only after families used a Pennsylvania law that forced the authorities to act.
That law allows people to file private criminal complaints in municipal court in misdemeanor cases, a category that in Pennsylvania includes involuntary manslaughter.
Mr. Shapiro spoke about the case’s complicated history in a statement on Tuesday.
“The Amtrak crash was a tragedy, and this case has a unique procedural history,” he said. “We are carefully reviewing the judge’s decision, notes of testimony and our prosecutorial responsibilities in this case going forward.”
Brian McMonagle, a lawyer for Mr. Bostian, celebrated the decision on Tuesday, saying the judge “came to the same conclusion that was reached by the prosecutors who investigated this case for two years, and that is that there was no criminal negligence here.”
“When tragedies like this occur we become angry and sad and want to curse the heavens,” he said in an email. “But the fact remains that this was an accident and not a crime.”
Thomas Kline, a lawyer representing the family of Rachel Jacobs and Robert Gildersleeve, who both died in the crash, and roughly 20 other victims, called the judge’s decision “shocking” and “a sore disappointment.”
“The commonwealth’s burden here is only to prove the conduct was in reckless disregard for the safety of the those who were injured and died and the testimony was clear and unassailable that Brandon Bostian was going 106 miles an hour in a 50-mile-an-hour zone,” Mr. Kline said. “His only job was to control the speed of the train, not even to steer the train — it just goes on the track, lest we forget.”
Mr. Kline said he was hopeful that the attorney general’s office would appeal the judge’s decision. “This was heard in the municipal court and there is a right to refile the charges in the common pleas court, which is the trial level court,” he said.
Mr. McMonagle said the accident was the result not of “a criminal who stoned passenger trains in the night,” a reference to an episode shortly before the derailment in which a local passenger train traveling in the opposite direction was struck by a rock that broke its wind screen.
In a 2016 report, the National Transportation Safety Board linked the derailment of Northeast Regional Train 188 with the stone incident that affected that passenger train. It said Mr. Bostian accelerated the train when he did because he thought it was at a different section of the route “because of his loss of situational awareness.”
“He lost his situational awareness because his attention was diverted to an emergency situation with a nearby Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) train that had made an emergency stop after being struck by a projectile,” the report said.
The report said the accident could have been prevented if the tracks had been equipped with positive train control, a system that enforces speed restrictions. The death toll could also have been reduced if the train’s windows had remained secure and intact, it said.
Last October, Amtrak agreed to pay up to $265 million to victims and their families. It was one of the largest settlements related to a train derailment in the United States.