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To Make Amtrak Crash Victims Whole, Congress Must Raise Rail Liability Cap

May 20, 2015

Joanne Doroshow, founder and executive director of the Center for Justice and Democracy at New York Law School, is also a columnist for The Huffington Post. In the past, she has covered discrimination in the tort reform movement, advocated for protecting the seventh amendment, (the right to have your case heard by a jury) and discussed ways in which corporations exploit the court system while actively trying to limit individuals’ access to it. Her most recent article, however, argues that–especially in light of the deadly Philadelphia accident that claimed eight lives–Congress must raise Amtrak’s liability cap to ensure victims will be able to earn adequate  compensation.

Doroshow begins her article by citing a Politico piece, which, devastatingly, reports that the Amtrak 188 derailment occurred only “hours after the House Appropriations Committee voted down [an amendment] that would have provided $825 million to help install” technology that might have automatically stopped the train when it approached a curve at twice its permitted speed. Even if the bill had passed, another Politico article notes, Amtrak’s budget would have been slashed by about $260 million from last year to this year. If rail safety is a priority for our legislature, this evidence does not support that claim.

Money is not just a factor in restoring our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, however.

Doroshow indicates that in 1997, Congress set an overall liability cap of $200 million for any rail accident, regardless of “how horrific the crash, reckless the rail company, or [the number of] people killed or injured.” While this seems like a lot of money, a superior court judge claimed that a deadly crash in California in 2008 required about $64 million in additional funds in order to make victims whole. (Worth noting is the fact that this amount has not been adjusted for inflation since the passage of the cap nearly two decades ago–the same amount would have totaled more than $293 million as of last year.)

“There is not enough money to compensate the victims for future medical care and past pain and suffering […] Impossible decisions had to be made […] What was given to one victim had to be taken from another,” the California judge wrote. He went so far as to describe the situation as something out of Sophie’s Choice, weighing one life against another–some 150 times.

The 2008 crash killed 25 and injured 135, which is not far from the eight deaths and over two hundred injuries in the Philadelphia crash. There will, without question, be a comparable number of lawsuits to come out of this recent accident.

It is completely unfair for lawmakers to arbitrarily decide upon a figure and to impose that as a liability limit for people who have been killed, or even for people who have been catastrophically injured and will require a lifetime of medical care.

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