Smith's lawyer, Abramson, noted, though, that the prosecution was made possible by a little-used maritime law that makes negligence in ferry operations a crime. No such law governs railway operations. One of Smith's supervisors was convicted and sentenced to jail time under the unusual law.
As for civil litigation, lawyers said Metro-North and its parent, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, may have a hard time avoiding millions of dollars in damages over the injuries and deaths.
"If he fell asleep at the switch, I don't see how they can defend themselves," said David Cook, a partner at Kreindler and Kreindler, a law firm that specializes in transportation accidents.
He said, however, that under New York law the families of killed passengers could be limited in what they recover compared to what they might get in other states. Plaintiffs might also have a harder time recovering punitive damages if the engineer's story about nodding off proves true.
"We've all, unfortunately, experienced that moment where you have that momentary nod," Cook said.
The MTA declined to comment on the legal claims on Thursday. It has cited a policy against commenting on pending litigation.
Attorney Michael Lamonsoff, who is representing at least two passengers who were on the derailed train and has already filed a legal claim with Metro-North, said his clients were more interested in holding the railroad accountable for not installing safety equipment that could have prevented the accident than they were in seeing the engineer punished.
Congress ordered many railroads in 2008 to install a type of automated crash-avoidance technology called Positive Train Control but gave them until 2015 to comply.
"This technology existed and isn't nearly as costly as the cost of human life and misery caused by this accident," Lamonsoff said.
Metro-North, which runs between New York and Connecticut, has said installing the safety technology is a difficult and expensive process. Its parent agency and other railroads have pressed the government to extend the 2015 deadline a few years because of the cost and complexity of the Positive Train Control system, which uses GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor trains and stop them from colliding, derailing or going the wrong way.