With the first claim filed in the catastrophic Chatsworth Metrolink train accident and many more to come, legal experts around the country are already wondering if it will test a 1997 U.S. law, which caps passengers’ damage claims in railroad accidents at $200 million. According to this Bloomberg News report, the cap will certainly become an issue in this case because of the high number of casualties and serious injuries. So far 26 people have died and more than 135 have been injured with 40 having suffered critical injuries.
The law places a $200 million cap on “the aggregate allowable awards to all rail passengers” from any single rail accident. That includes punitive damages. Although that 1997 law was part of a bill reauthorizing Amtrak, it covers all rail carriers in the country.
There is no question that this law is going to pose an enormous roadblock for the victims and their families to seek justice for themselves and their loved ones. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators have yet to determine the cause of the accident. They have already faulted Metrolink for not installing Positive Train Control (PTC) systems that have the ability to automatically apply brakes on trains that miss red light signals. The Chatsworth head-on train collision occurred because the Metrolink engineer, for an unknown reason, did not stop at the signal and allow the freight train to pass, officials said.
Investigators are looking into whether the engineer may have fallen asleep, was text messaging or suffered a heart attack or seizure while on the job. A Metrolink spokeswoman faulted the engineer for not stopping for the red light hours after the catastrophic train crash.
Given these facts and circumstances, Metrolink would be best-served to set up a compensation fund for the victims instead of fighting over the damages cap in court. In my opinion, given the number of fatalities and injuries and their liability, Metrolink should not even take the litigation route. It would benefit them to make a generous allocation to compensate people for the tremendous losses they have obviously suffered in this train crash. Metrolink will only end up paying more in attorney fees if they start challenging the damage cap. It could be a long-winding and expensive road for Metrolink because the courts have not settled that issue yet.