June 2, 2015 • Train Accidents
On May 12th, Amtrak train 188 derailed near Philadelphia while taking a curve on the railroad. The derailment caused eight deaths and around 200 people in the train were injured, with some of them still in a critical condition. According to investigations that were carried out, the train was travelling at over 100 mph just before trying to manage the curve. A speed limit of 50 mph is in place for such track areas where there is a curve.
This means the train was travelling at twice the speed it was supposed to travel on that stretch. The engineer who was in charge that day had applied the emergency brakes just before the derailment, but claimed memory loss when asked about the accident. Many people believe he deserves the death penalty for his incompetence.
In such a scenario what are the existing laws that apply to this crash, and who can be held liable.
Who is Liable?
Even though railroads are subject to state and federal laws, the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) is the main agency in charge of regulating railroad companies and enforcing safety regulations. In most instances, federal preempts state law, hence, for all practical purposes; the Amtrak crash will be tried based on federal law.
When people are injured in a train accident, victims can mainly claim compensation for their injuries based on negligence of the railroad company. According to existing laws, the victim must show that the railroad company had a duty of care, the company breached this duty, and this breach was the immediate cause of the injuries. In the Amtrak derailment, according to reports so far, liability of Amtrak seems to be obvious.
Amtrak has a duty of care to its passengers, and in this particular instance, the train was supposed to travel at 50 mph, but it was going at twice that speed. Taking the curve at that speed caused the derailment, which was the immediate cause on why so many people suffered and are still suffering. This does not even count all the damage to the track and to the train itself that has been sustained.
Existing Laws on Damages
In a 1997 Congress ruling, a law was passed, which put a cap of $200 million on damages, per rail accident. Hence, the party liable for the accident can be made to pay a maximum of $200 million to all the victims put together. In the present Amtrak crash, the total economic loss of all the victims put together is estimated to be much above this cap. But that is still a fair price according to many people. In other countries, you may not even get an apology.
This law on cap on damages was mainly passed to help the ailing railroad industry at that time. However, since that time these existing laws on damages have not been revised based on inflation or any other considerations. Hence, most of the derailment crash victims may not be adequately compensated even if liability of Amtrak is proved in court. It depends though on who passed away though. Some people believe that if you were not making that much money, you should not be an instant millionaire for example if you cannot work for a while because of your injuries.
The train or rail industry is not that profitable. $200 million is a huge amount to Amtrak. Amtrak does not even make a profit on some years. But Amtrak should assume this money is now gone though and perhaps even there will be less customers in the future. This is because if you are driving your car this is not something you have to think about.
A Wait too Long
The only recourse would be to appeal against these existing laws on damages. However, this will be a long process and victims might have to wait a long time before any revision to existing laws are passed. This is probably not the route most of the victims are going to want to take.