Conrail signs secret settlements with Paulsboro, NJ spill victims

PAULSBORO, N.J. - March 11, 2013

Action News obtained the settlements and records that show Conrail convinced dozens of parents to sign away the rights of their children for as little as $500.

In the seconds it takes to sign on the dotted line, Conrail is being released from a lifetime of responsibility, should these children get seriously sick.

Behind closed doors, Conrail is making a deal too tempting for some parents in this impoverished town to turn down.

Rashan Jefferson drove his kids right through the chemical spill before they knew what it was, but his family wasn't evacuated until several days later.

"You figure for four days we were probably exposed to it," Jefferson told me. "I think they are just preying on the poor, that's all that is."

Jefferson says a Conrail representative offered him and his wife, Jamie Fortner, $2500: $500 for each of their five young kids, including his baby girl, who was just ten days old when the train, carrying the toxic chemical vinyl chloride, derailed.

"$2500 to a lot of these people is a lot of money," said Fortner. "But in reality it is not, not for your kids' health, not for your health."

Asked if $500 would cover the kids' medical bills if they were to get sick, attorney Alan Sklarsky replied, "No, I think it's obvious that's pretty unlikely."

Sklarsky is advising his clients not to sign the settlement, in which parents agree their minor children will hold the company "forever harmless" for "injuries sustained" as a result of the accident.

"We don't know what all of those risks are," said Sklarsky.

"I asked him, I said, 'If you had a child who was ten days old, would you sign that paper?'" said Jefferson.

Jefferson and his wife walked away without signing the papers. But we got our hands on a list of 54 children, as young as 2 months old, whose parents signed settlements.

Conrail refused to respond to our questions about these children's rights, referring us only to a previous statement, which said, "The claims process is designed to address claims fairly and promptly and with finality."

"What's sad is they don't even care about kids," said Jefferson. "And that is the worst thing. Not to care about a kid's future and health."

At least one attorney has now filed a temporary restraining order against Conrail in an attempt to halt these settlements.

But in a court filing, Conrail has asked the court to approve what it describes as a "volume of minors' settlements."

A date for that hearing has yet to be set.

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