Amtrak Crash Compensation: Victims Subject To $200 Million Limit On Damages Sought, But Is That Enough Money?

International Business Times
Friday, May 15, 2015

Hundreds of people are expected to file claims for damages after Tuesday’s Amtrak crash in Philadelphia, but they might get an unpleasant surprise in the courtroom. Thanks to a rather obscure law from the 1990s, Amtrak can pay out only a maximum of $200 million in damages to all victims of a single accident.

The cap might seem high, especially compared to damages awarded to victims of accidents in European countries, but legal experts said it may not be enough. Without a strong social safety net in the United States, those injured, as well as the families of victims killed, may be hard-pressed to find other sources of support to make up for any lost income and to cover medical expenses. Yet if history offers any indication, those seeking damages will have little choice but to take what they are given.

"$200 million is not enough to compensate all the people involved in this crash,” said Joanne Doroshow, executive director of the Center for Justice and Democracy at New York Law School. Those who were severely injured in the crash could need tens of millions of dollars apiece in medical care, she said, while others might demand tens of millions more in lost income for family members killed or disabled.


Of the more than 200 people who ended up in the hospital after the crash Tuesday night, the majority are likely to sue, based on similar incidents in the past with mass casualties, experts said. “It’s the only way you can get compensation,” Doroshow pointed out.

Compared to rewards in European countries, where in one instance a train company spent $5.6 million compensating families of victims of a crash, a $200 million cap may seem a princely sum. But the social safety net in the United States is far less extensive than in Europe, meaning that when American victims seek high compensation, one of the reasons they do so is because of a lack of support from elsewhere.


“Under our system of justice, those lost earnings are a very important part of someone’s injury claim,” Doroshow said. While it remained unknown Friday who all the passengers were and their earning power, she said, “I think it’s safe to assume that there were probably some people on the train who were earning substantial incomes.”


When trains crash in European countries, victims are less dependent on compensation to cover medical costs, Doroshow suggested. “Every other civilized country has a decent healthcare system for people, part of the social safety net for their citizens that doesn’t exist in this country,” she said. “So people here who have been hurt depend on litigation and lawsuits to get properly compensated.”


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