Congress’s 1997 Act Limits Amtrak’s Payout to Crash Victims to $200 Million

In the aftermath of the recent Philadelphia Amtrak derailment, which cost the lives of eight individuals and severely injured more than 200, it came to light that the U.S. Congress had passed an act in 1997 to limit or cap Amtrak’s total payouts to train crash victims to $200 million. In an Associated Press report by writer Eileen Sullivan, it was reported that the cap may be too low for the injured and killed in the Philadelphia Amtrak crash.

The $200 million payout cap was for a single passenger rail incident was part of a late effort in 1997 to pass legislation that would help Amtrak financially, which was on the brink of bankruptcy at that time.

The 1997 legislation did not adjust the payout cap for inflation. If that were considered today, the payout cap might reach somewhere in the area of $300 million in 2015 dollars.

The Associated Press article said its reporters had reviewed past cases and found that there had never been one payout where Amtrak has paid as much as $200 million for a single passenger rail incident. The May 12, 2015 Amtrak crash in Philadelphia is likely to reach and surpass that cap, $200 million, based on the numbers of deaths and severely injured.

The Amtrak crash involved a train that had left Washington, D.C., and was headed to New York City. It was reported that on a curb it was moving at twice the allowed speed when it derailed. The train derailed not far from its last stop at Philadelphia’s 30th Street station.

One Amtrak employee has already filed a lawsuit claiming damages in excess of $150,000. Interestingly enough, the legislation that was passed limiting the cap does not apply to Amtrak’s employees. It applies only to passengers.

There was a similar derailment and Metrolink crash near Los Angeles in 2008, which did result in a payout of $200 million to the injured and killed victims. That crash resulted in the deaths of 25 people and injured more than 100. Metrolink provides commuter rail service in Southern California and is operated by a French company.

In that case, the $200 million was divided among the victims with sums between $12,000 and $9 million. In some cases, lawyers indicated that the amounts were far less than projected costs of medical care needed as a result of the catastrophic injuries suffered in that Los Angeles crash.

In the last five years there has been a movement by some U.S. lawmakers to increase the rail service cap to $500 million, but the lobbyists for the railroads were successful in preventing the bill to be brought up for a vote on the House and Senate floors. In the airline industry, there is a cap for international aviation travel established by a convention placing the cap at $160,000 per passenger. However if an airline would be proved negligent in a court, a victim’s family could sue for more money unlike the families of passenger rail victims.

Some lawyers representing the injured or families of those killed in the Philadelphia Amtrak incident are questioning whether there will be enough funds available, $200 million, to cover all of the deaths and injuries in this derailment. The cases are being evaluated. The tragedy is that derailments like this could and should have been prevented if it were not for the outdated or absent electronic warning mechanisms. The sorry state of the infrastructure of the rail system may have been a contributing factor in this disaster, although human error may prove to have been the central cause. The electronic warning system, if in effect at the time, could have alerted the conductor and reflexively slowed the train to the speed limit, which could have prevented the derailment.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling catastrophic injury cases, wrongful death cases, and truck and train accident cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 38 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Morton Grove, Naperville, Palatine, Buffalo Grove, Hyde Park, Prospect Heights, Orland Park, Melrose Park, Des Plaines, East Hazelcrest, Elgin, Aurora, Bolingbrook, Lake Bluff, Deerfield, Gurnee, Round Lake Beach, Crystal Lake, Cary, Chicago (Humboldt Park, Pilsen, West Town, Wicker Park, Albany Park, Irving Park, Pulaski Park, Edgebrook, Norwood Park, Edison Park), Harwood Heights and Arlington Heights, Ill.

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