Amtrak derailment liability capped by federal law

Published: Dec. 19, 2017 at 4:54 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 20, 2017 at 11:32 AM EST
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SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - One day after a deadly Amtrak train derailment in Washington state, a Savannah attorney specializing in public transportation accidents speaks about what it could cost the company. And it's not as much as you may think.

At least three people are dead and dozens more injured after Amtrak train cars derailed in Washington state Monday. Eighty passengers, two Amtrak employees, and five on-duty crew members were on board.

Lawsuits are likely forthcoming, but Savannah-based attorney Stephen Lowry, whose firm handles railroad and catastrophic disaster cases, says the number of claims won't impact what Amtrak pays.

The Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997 limits the maximum "allowable awards to all rail passengers, against all defendants, for all claims, including claims for punitive damages, arising from a single accident or incident" to $200 million.

"That's not a lot of money, especially when you're talking about the value of somebody's life or if somebody is catastrophically injured," Lowry said. "Like, if they are paralyzed, have lost a limb, you know, those people can easily have more than a million dollars in medical bills alone, so $1 million is not very much money for somebody who's been catastrophically injured. And to have a hard cap of $200 million, no matter how many people who've been injured, really doesn't make much sense."

Lowry said it is typical for government agencies, like Amtrak, to have a cap. For example, the state of Georgia has a limit on the amount of money an individual can recover. In an injury case, Lowry said people can recover money for lost wages, medical bills and pain and suffering. In a wrongful death suit, someone can recover money for the value of the deceased's life and estate. Those values don't matter here.

"The interesting part of this is that the cap in this an overall cap, so it doesn't matter how many people have been injured or killed," he said. "The cap is $200 million, and $200 million dollars sounds like a lot of money to most people. But if you have 200 injured or potentially killed, that's a very little amount of money."

The National Transportation Safety Board says the train was traveling 80 miles per hour on a 30 mile per hour stretch of track when it derailed, but the NTSB hasn't released an official cause yet.

In 2015, after a deadly derailment in Philadelphia, Congress passed the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act or FAST Act, which increased the maximum liability to $295 million, but only for that incident.

To change that 1997-set cap for this accident, Congress would need to again pass a temporary increase like it did in 2015.

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