The federal highway bill approved at the beginning of December 2015 included two good news/bad news provisions for travelers who use passenger and commuter trains. On the positive side, the $305 billion spending package intended to cover the next five years of U.S. government ground transportation projects dedicates $199 million for supporting private companies’ efforts to comply with requirements to install positive train control (PTC) systems. Lawmakers also raised the cap on total wrongful death and personal injury settlements following passenger train crashes to $295 million.
PTC was supposed to be in use along all interstate railroad tracks before the latest transportation bill got signed. Resistance from both freight carriers and passenger lines, including Amtrak, ensured the actual deadline would be missed by nearly everyone. Bowing to that reality but also wanting to compel rail corporations and track owners to deploy necessary safety technology, Congress extended the compliance date to Dec. 31, 2018. Funds from the feds will also prevent companies from falling back on their old excuse that installing PTC will be too expensive.
The downside to this news about PTC is that federal investigators have ruled several times that automatic braking technology could have prevented or mitigated serious train derailments and wrecks. And now, preliminary findings from reconstructions of the May 12, 2015, Amtrak derailment outside Philadelphia that left eight people dead and dozens injured indicate that PTC could have kept the train on its tracks.
The train was going 106 mph when it derailed on a curve with a posted speed limit of 50 mph. Families of the passengers who lost their lives and injured survivors have since filed more than 60 claims against Amtrak. Until a few weeks ago, all those plaintiffs would have been restricted by federal law to splitting $200 million. That liability cap was enacted in 1997; the belated increase represents only 20 years of inflation.
As a Carolina train crash injury lawyer, I know that determining a settlement amount for a deceased victim that truly reflects the loss to his or her family is difficult. Doing so within the constraints of an arbitrarily fixed dollar limit while also accounting for the legitimate needs of other victims could be impossible — and certainly would not look like justice.
Liability caps are almost always unfair to victims. While raising the federal cap for injuries and deaths following passenger train crashes is long overdue, removing the cap would do more good.