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Four years later, survivors of Metrolink crash still hurting

Like other survivors from the crash of Metrolink 111, Mike Wiederkehr will never be the same.

Before, the Burbank resident was a triathlete. After, he could no longer swim or run because of shoulder, knee and ankle injuries. He had to transfer from his position as Glendale's public works administrator to a lower-paying city job because of post-traumatic stress disorder, a malady that also contributed to the breakup of his first marriage.

A judge awarded him $225,000 for the physical injuries he suffered on Sept. 12, 2008, when the evening commuter train to Ventura collided with a freight train in Chatsworth, slamming his body into the seats.

But after attorney's fees, medical insurance reimbursements and other recovery expenses, he has only about $30,000 left — far less than the roughly $480,000 needed to cover future medical and rehabilitation costs as well as lost earnings.

Wiederkehr, 55, is now thinking about postponing reconstructive surgery for his shattered ankle out of fear that the long recovery time could jeopardize his current job.

This Wednesday marks the fourth anniversary of one of the worst railroad accidents in the nation. The 25 people who died have long been eulogized and the resulting lawsuits closed. But scores of victims will still face the consequences of a federal liability cap they say has left them inadequately compensated.

Only a year after a Los Angeles judge rationed the available funds among 126 people, some victims are running out of money for care and counseling.

Others who were seriously injured remain out of work, retired earlier than expected or — like Wiederkehr — have been forced to take less-demanding positions at lower pay.

Even those who received the largest judgments because they had the most crippling injuries are unsure they can afford the cost of care and living expenses for the rest of their lives. And for those whose spouses, parents and children were killed, the money was often less than what other court verdicts and government studies have found to be the dollar value of a human life.

"I have seen people in wheelchairs and people with metal rods in their backs who will never work again," said Claudia Souser of Camarillo, a mother of three who lost her husband, Doyle, a certified public accountant and the family's sole breadwinner. "Some have five surgeries to go and the money is running out. This is an injustice. Four years out, I've learned a lot about grief."

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-- Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times

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