Missouri Jury Awards $159M To Family Of Man Slain On Amtrak

A federal jury in Missouri returned a nearly $159 million verdict in favor of the decedent’s family against Amtrak for failing to enforce adequate safety and security protocols on its train and for failing to promptly respond to reports of gunshots and an injured passenger.

Man waiting for train

ByKandace Watkins, J.D.

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Published on February 22, 2024

Man waiting for train

The Background

On January 14, 2022, returning home from a two-week work trip, Richie Terrell Aaron, Jr., boarded an Amtrak traveling from Normal, Illinois to Independence, Missouri. The train carrying Mr. Aaron stopped at a station in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, where Mr. Marquise Webb boarded the train.

Witnesses described Mr. Webb as wearing a puffy jacket and carrying a backpack. Upon boarding the train, a conductor checked Mr. Webb’s tickets and questioned why he purchased two tickets for the same itinerary. Mr. Webb did not provide the conductor with an answer. Moreover, the conductor did not check Mr. Webb’s backpack or ask Mr. Webb to remove his coat.

Before the train departed the Lee’s Summit stop, passengers notified Amtrak personnel that they heard gunshots and that Mr. Aaron was lying on the ground bleeding. Mr. Webb, a stranger to Mr. Aaron, shot him without provocation or witnesses. Despite protests from the passengers, the Amtrak personnel did not stop the train. More than 35 minutes passed between the time Mr. Webb shot Mr. Aaron and the training stopping in Independence. The emergency medical technicians at the Independence stop pronounced Mr. Aaron dead at the scene.

In March 2022, on behalf of herself and their three children, Mr. Aaron’s wife, Breayonna Aaron brought an action against Amtrak and Mr. Webb alleging that Amtrak (1) had inadequate safety protocols and (2) failed to promptly and adequately address the reports of gunshots and injuries on the train.

The Allegations

Ms. Aaron, represented by Nuru Witherspoon and Kamaria Harper Williams of The Witherspoon Law Group, and Aubrey Pittman of The Pittman Law Firm PC, alleged that before boarding the train at the Lee’s Summit stop, Mr. Webb committed a carjacking. According to Ms. Aaron’s complaint, the carjacking victim described Mr. Webb as having puffy and bloodshot eyes, and he appeared as if he was on drugs.

Ms. Aaron went on to allege that while stopped at the Lee’s Summit station, Mr. Webb shot Mr. Aaron, which was heard by multiple passengers. The passengers reported the gunshots and Mr. Aaron’s injuries to the Amtrak personnel. However, Amtrak made no effort to stay at the Lee’s Summit station; stop the train along the route to obtain emergency medical services for Mr. Aaron sooner; or contact emergency medical services at the time of the shooting.

In addition to failing to promptly and adequately respond to Mr. Aaron’s reported injuries, Ms. Aaron also alleged that Amtrak failed to have and enforce adequate safety protocols on its train. Ms. Aaron’s attorney argued that Amtrak did not follow its own safety and security protocols. For instance, no Amtrak employee responded to the sound of gunshots or the reports of gunshots from passengers, which violated Amtrak’s Commitment to Safety Policy. Additionally, Amtrak failed to search or detain Mr. Webb, who should have been considered a suspicious passenger. Ms. Aaron’s attorney further argued that Amtrak has no passenger security screenings before boarding to detect firearms.

Ms. Williams, one of Ms. Aaron’s attorneys, opined that the paramount issue in the case was that Amtrak did not have the adequate protocol to enforce its no-weapon policy.

The Trial

The eight-day trial in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri began on January 22, 2024. Amtrak was represented by Rachel M. Smith and Sean P. Hamer of Scharnhorst, Ast, Kennard, Griffin, PC, and Mark S. Landman of Landman, Corsi, Ballaine & Ford, PC.

On January 31, 2024, the federal jury returned an almost $159 million verdict for Ms. Aaron. The award included $150 million in punitive damages and $8.8 million in compensatory damages. The jury found that Amtrak was 90% liable for the compensatory damages and Mr. Webb was liable for the remainder.

Regarding punitive damages, Missouri caps the amount that victims can receive to the lesser of (1) five times the compensatory damages awarded; or (2) $500,000. As of the publication of this article, a judgment has not been made as to how this cap will affect Ms. Aaron’s award.

In his criminal trial, Mr. Webb pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, armed criminal action, and vehicle hijacking. The court sentenced him to 28 years in prison.

About the author

Kandace Watkins, J.D.

Kandace Watkins, J.D.

Kandace Watkins, J.D., is distinguished in the field of financial regulatory compliance, currently holding the position of Compliance Counsel II at SECU. She has previously served as the Assistant General Counsel at Self-Help Credit Union and was an Associate Attorney at Young Moore and Henderson, P.A. Her legal acumen was further developed through her role as a Judicial Law Clerk at the Supreme Court of North Carolina. Kandace's legal education includes a J.D. from the University of North Carolina School of Law and specialized training in International Human Rights at the Paris Summer Institute, a program of Cornell University Law School.