Challenging the Liability Caps

By now who hasn’t heard about the fatal Metrolink collision in southern California on September 12. In a tragic accident, a railroad engineer failed to stop the commuter train at a red light, possibly because he was distracted by text messaging. The crash resulted in 25 deaths (including the engineer’s) and some 135 injuries.

A September 16, 2008, story in the Los Angeles Times reports that the crash could challenge the cap of $200 million set by Congress in 1997 on railroad accidents. In essence, Congress declared that a railroad could only be held liable for a maximum of $200 million in damages per accident. Based on the number killed and injured and the average amounts awarded for wrongful death and catastrophe in similar cases, the recent Metrolink collision could exceed the $200 million cap.

Some attorneys will argue that the cap is unconstitutional and that the railroad industry should not be exempt from full damages when other transportation industries receive no protection from the government. They may also argue that the 1997 cap was designed to protect only Amtrak (Congress bailed out Amtrak in 1997 in the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997).

No challenge of the cap can be made, however, until damages in excess of the $200 million cap are awarded.