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Statute Based Restriction on Total Damage Amount for Single Railroad Accidents May Not Allow for Adequate Victim Recovery

When a train accident occurs the damage can be devastating and have a lasting impact on all those involved. Many times the victims are left with overwhelming medical expenses and other expenditures related to the accident as a result. After an accident the sufferers must be made whole again, but due to the regulated maximum amount in which Amtrak is allowed to compensate the collective victims of a single train accident it may leave victims in need of more.

In 1997, the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act (“the Act”) was passed by legislation to control the amount that Amtrak could be found liable in a single train accident lawsuit. According to the Act, legislation capped the “aggregate allowable awards to all rail passengers, against all defendants, for all claims, including claims for punitive damages, arising from a single accident or incident, shall not exceed $200,000,000.” This tort reform is attached collectively to all victims of single railroad accidents, regardless of the total number of suffering parties seeking damages in the given lawsuit. When the Act was established, the aim of the provision was to ensure that railroad processes would be able to maintain operations during periods of substantial lawsuits against their company.

Unfortunately, the capped amount is not allowing for adequate compensation to all victims of railroad accidents. The federal limit cap does not account for inflation, dating from approximately two decades ago as it was enacted by Bill Clinton while in office. Also, because of the pre-established amount of $200 million the victims and their families are not afforded the opportunity to use the judicial system and its procedures to determine the appropriate amount for their total suffering. Families are finding out that the 1997 provision is not allowing for enough reparation to ensure the expenses produced by the train accident can be paid in full, such as medical expenses and lost wages, because the statute sets the firm limit at $200 million.

Recent cases have shown evidence of the capped amount of $200 million to be extremely difficult to distribute throughout a large number of victim parties of a single train accident lawsuit. In 2008, a California railroad accident occurred where a Metrolink passenger train failed to stop for a red light signal collided with an Union Pacific freight train head on. This single railroad accident resulted in the death of 24 people and injured over 130 more. The compensation amount of $200 million was simply not an adequate amount to fully compensate each of the accident victims. The presiding Judge Peter Lichtman expressed that exact perspective, in his 2011 ruling on the 2008 California railroad accident lawsuit, when stating that under the prearrangement limit there was “not enough money to compensate the victims for future medical care and past pain and suffering.” Lichtman also articulated that, “Impossible decisions had to be made. What was given to one victim had to be taken from another.”

In 2010, two California Senators called for the reformation of the Act to allow for the aggregate allowable award limit to reach as high as $500 million in order to adequately be able to compensate injured parties. That dollar amount figure continues to be under scrutiny. Those who debate against the increased capped amount argue that the elimination of a capped amount would all but destroy passenger based train operations due to the extreme costs of insurance that would be attached to the trains as a result.

More recently, a May 2015 Philadelphia train derailment left over 200 injured and 8 dead. Many victims and family members of the deceased have or plan on filing suit against the railroad company seeking damages from the accident. The increased limit amount for the damages that those individuals will be able to collect is now $295 million due to a recently passed bipartisan transportation bill. Although, some argue that even the increased amount may not adequately compensate each of the injured parties.