Turning Tragic Loss Into Help For Others

The Plain Dealer


 by: James F. McCarty

People around Canal Fulton still approach Vicki Moore to ask how she plans to spend her cut of the $10 million.

"They all seem to think we're going to line our pockets with it. They can't believe that we don't give a damn about the money," Moore said.

For all of the curiosity-seekers, Moore promises that the money won in a lawsuit against Conrail is going to a good cause--but not to her and her husband, Denny. The couple settled on what they believe is the best way to bring something good out of an event so tragic.

They're giving the money away.

The Moores won the millions in a lawsuit filed after a Conrail freight train plowed into a car filled with six Northwest High School students on March 25, 1995.

Three of the teenagers were killed, including the Moores' 16-year-old son, Ryan. Their other son, Jason, then 18, was driving the car and was seriously injured.

At a jury trial in 1996, traffic and rail experts testified that the Deerfield Ave. crossing where the accident occurred was extraordinarily dangerous--the site of eight deaths in seven accidents since 1975. The experts blamed poor sight lines, high speeds and the absence of warning lights, stop signs or road gates.

Moreover, it appeared from trial testimony that the fatal crossing was a worst-case example of a countywide problem. Less than half of Stark County's 250 rail crossings were equipped with safety features such as lights, gates, or stop signs, the experts said.

The Moores were shocked at the findings and feared another family might someday experience the pain that they felt at the loss of their son. Joined by the parents of victim Joshua White, 17, the Moores took their concerns to the judge, who agreed to present their unusual proposal to the jury:

Any punitive damages that the Moores and the Whites received would be placed in a charitable trust to be used to identify unsafe rail crossings in Stark County and to upgrade them with gates and flashing lights.

On June 28, 1996, the jury awarded the parents a total of $10 million, including $7 million in punitive damges to the Moores and $1 million to the Whites, who later opted to give their money to the YMCA in Stark County. Both of the families also received $1 million each in compensatory damages for the loss of their children, which they will keep. The parents of the third victim, Alyson Ley, 16, settled out of court with Conrail.

Last week, after the Ohio Supreme Court approved the damage award and the lawyers took out their fees, a check for $5.4 million was placed in the bank account of the Angels on Track Foundation, the charitable trust established by the Moores.

"We didn't want the money. We wanted to correct the problem, and we're going to spend the rest of our lives trying to do it," Vicky Moore said.

One of their lawyers, Eric Kennedy of Cleveland, said that, to his knowledge, the acts of benevolence by the Moores and Whites were unprecedented.

"It's the first time I'm aware of it ever happening in this country," Kennedy said. "To have families who have suffered such tragic losses actually give back millions of dollars is truly extraordinary. It was the best way they could think of to make these deaths have meaning, while taking away the argument that they were gold diggers looking for a windfall."

The Moores met with the head of the rail division of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, and the couple established a task force to help identify the most dangerous crossings and to recommend safety upgrades.

After l l/2 years spent appealing the jury's verdict, Conrail has joined in support of the Moores.

"Any program that works and contributes toward traffic safety we think is good," said spokesman Bob Libkind from Conrail's headquarters in Philadelphia.

The financial responsibility for assuring the safety of rail crossings has long been a point of contention between the rail companies and the public, Kennedy said. The companies are responsible for maintaining the crossings after they are installed, but it is the job of the government to identify unsafe rail crossings and to pay for equipment and installation costs with taxpayer money, he said.

Thus, while Conrail and other rail companies will be the ultimate beneficiaries of the Moores multimillion-dollar largess, the money will be presented to the PUCO for proper allocation, Vicky Moore said.

The impact of the Moores' gift on rail crossings in Stark County could be monumental, Kennedy said.

The money alone would be enough to repair three dozen unsafe rail crossings at $150,000 per crossing. Accounting for interest on the charitable trust, plus matching funds from the federal government, the benefits to rail safety could spill over into improving many of the 7,000 rail crossings in Ohio.

"This is a fine thing," PUCO spokesman Dick Kimmins said. But he noted that more than half of all fatalities in the state over the last five years occured at crossings where drivers ignored warning signals.

"The most important safety factor is in between the drivers' ears," Kimmins said.

Vicky Moore can't speak for others. All she knows is her son and his friends died at an unsafe crossing where they didn't have a chance to heed the warnings of a gate or a flashing light. Donating the money in his name is the best way to assure Ryan Moore did not die in vain, she said.

"We're hoping that he knows what we're doing and that he's proud."


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