Damages Limit at Issue in LA Train Crash

In the wake of the deadly train collision in Los Angeles, California’s U.S. senators are questioning a federal law that sets a $200 million limit on damage payouts to victims of a train crash.

With 25 dead and more than 130 injured, September 2008’s head-on crash between a Metrolink commuter train and a freight train could test that limit for the first time since its enactment in 1997, experts said.

Brian Panish, a defense attorney who is representing two victims of the crash and has litigated past train accidents, said payouts could range from $5 million to $10 million for each death or serious injury. So the $200 million limit could be easily met or exceeded.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has scheduled a briefing with officials from Metrolink, the National Transportation Safety Board and others. The liability limit is one of the issues she plans to raise.

“We want to make sure that people can recover what they deserve,” Boxer said in an interview. “Clearly, people have to have justice.”

Boxer said she and her staff were looking at options for dealing with the limit, including an approach like the one established by the Price-Anderson Act for nuclear disasters in which Congress can step in to make up the difference if the liability limit is reached.

Another option could be for Congress to act to waive the cap in this case.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., questioned the wisdom of having a liability limit at all.

“I strongly believe there should not be a liability cap that shields railroads from taking full responsibility for their actions,” she said through a spokesman. “I also believe the railroads should be encouraged to embrace collision avoidance systems so that serious accidents can be avoided.”

The $200 million limit was imposed as part of the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997. Lawmakers included it as part of a package of measures meant to help stabilize the carrier, which is perennially financially troubled.

Some experts have subsequently questioned whether the liability limit in the law would even apply to accidents not involving Amtrak trains. Some also question the constitutionality of the cap, saying defense attorneys could argue that victims’ rights to due process under the law had been violated if they were deprived of the ability to obtain redress.

However, since the cap has never been exceeded, no court has ever dealt directly with either of those questions.

“Nothing has tested the $200 million limit. It’s an absolutely open question,” said Stephen C. Yeazell, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles law school.”‘The bottom line is, I don’t think it’s ironclad.”

Panish said he would question the cap in court if it imperils the ability of his clients to obtain damages. “Why should the victims bear some of the cost when it’s no fault of theirs?” he asked.

Panish said his first move would be to ask Metrolink to waive the cap for this crash. Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca declined comment on that possibility. Oaxaca said Metrolink has insurance coverage up to $150 million.

Beyond the questions being raised by Boxer and Feinstein, there appears to be little interest in Congress in revisiting the cap.

With elections looming and Congress set to recess at the end of next week, aides to the chairmen of the House and Senate committees with oversight of rail said no moves were afoot to change the cap.