A lawsuit was filed last week arising out of an Amtrak train derailment that caused over 200 injuries and 8 deaths. On Tuesday, Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 derailed in Philadelphia carrying 238 passengers and 5 crew members. The train, traveling at a speed of 106 miles per hour, was rounding a curved portion of the track where the speed limit was only 50 miles per hour.
The lawsuit was filed in Pennsylvania federal court by an Amtrak employee, who is seeking $150,000 to compensate him for his traumatic brain injury and multiple contusions and facial lacerations that resulted from the train derailment. Although this was the first suit filed, there are expected to be hundreds more in the coming weeks and months as the extent of the damage is still being determined by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The NTSB is also the agency which investigates semi-truck accidents.
Future plaintiffs will face a significant hurdle in their cases in the form of a relatively unknown 1997 federal law. The 1997 Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act was enacted by Congress as an amendment to a section of the United States Code titled "Liability Limitation" and limits damages on all claims against defendants arising out of a single accident to $200 million. This applies to all railroad companies, and was enacted as a compromise to help the declining railroad industry limit their potential financial liability for future accidents. In cases with multiple plaintiffs and a damage cap, the court uses a judicial triage process to divide the damages amount among the plaintiffs, taking into account the seriousness of their injuries and the likelihood that they will incur additional expenses in the future, among several other factors.
The 1997 Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act is an example of tort reform where the legislature attempts to regulate the civil justice system, limiting who can recover for what injuries and how much they can recover. Most often tort reform is associated with medical or nursing home negligence cases. Some states have enacted caps or instituted medical review panels limiting injured patients' access to courts and ability to recover damages.
The $200 million cap could be catastrophic for future plaintiffs. In massive occurrences such as a train derailment, medical bills alone could total over $200 million, not accounting for property damage, lost wages, or pain and suffering. So what happens to the injured plaintiffs who file a claim after the money has been exhausted? Unfortunately, if the law is not challenged, they may be prevented from recovering. There is some hope, however, because it is likely that plaintiff's lawyers will challenge the constitutionality of the cap.
If you have been affected by any of these issues, please contact the Poppe Law Firm at 502-895-3400.