How Do Lawsuits Against Amtrak Work?

The December 2017 derailment of Amtrak Cascades train 501 in DuPont, Washington – an accident that left three people dead and injured dozens more – has left many people with questions. 

Multiple victims of the derailment have hired Davis Law Group, P.S., to represent them in the fight for compensation against Amtrak. But how exactly do these lawsuits proceed? As you’ll see, there are several key factors and differentiations that must be made in order to properly understand the full scope of the cases.

Amtrak’s Unique Structure

Founded in 1971, Amtrak serves over 31 million passengers and makes upwards of $2 billion each year. But most people do not know exactly how the company is organized.

amtrak accident lawsuitsAmtrak was created to take over most of the remaining U.S. passenger rail services. President Richard Nixon signed into law the Rail Passenger Service Act in 1970 to ensure the continuation of passenger rail lines. Amtrak is partially government funded, but operated and managed as a for-profit organization. 

Because of how Amtrak is supported by the federal government, there is quite a bit of confusion surrounding the company. Essentially, Amtrak cannot fail. While most companies must survive in the competitive marketplace or die, Amtrak is backed by the government and will always persist. 

When Amtrak was created, proponents hoped that government intervention would be brief. Their view was that Amtrak would soon support itself. That view has proved incorrect. Financial results have made a return to private operation infeasible.

Bottom line: because the United States government has made it clear that national passenger rail transit is here to stay, Amtrak is able to go before Congress and continually ask for more money. As you’ll see, this creates a unique dynamic when disaster strikes.

How Does Amtrak’s Model Affect Lawsuits?

The above section will drastically affect how you proceed with a lawsuit against Amtrak. While some people will think, “What does it matter if Amtrak is a government agency?” the issue is of the utmost importance. 

In your typical personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit, for example a car accident, an experienced defense attorney will try and take advantage of a victim without representation. These attorneys will demand a lot of personal information to poke holes in the case. This is all done to deny a claim. Having an attorney and giving the defense only what is legally required is key.

This process is known as discovery, the exchange of legal information and known facts of a case. Parties in a case are required to participate in the discovery process, meaning they must hand over information and evidence about a claim so all participants can know what they are facing at trial.

Treating Amtrak like a government agency puts victims at risk for handing over too much information. The following section explains the issues at play.

Potential Confusion For Accident Victims

Here is how lawsuits against the government usually go:

  1. File a notice of claim with the appropriate government agency. This is typically done within six months of the incident.
  2. Wait for the government to respond to your claim. It will either be accepted (which is rare) or denied (most common).
  3. If denied, you may file a lawsuit to hold the government responsible through the civil court process.

In cases that don’t involve the government, victims jump right to No. 3 and file a lawsuit. Filing a notice of claim with the agency that caused your injuries basically means you provide all the details of the event, why the government is responsible and how much compensation you’re asking for.

It is likely becoming clearer why it’s important not to treat Amtrak like a part of the government. In lawsuits against Amtrak, experienced attorneys have some control over what information flows through the discovery process. Mistaking Amtrak for the government may lead victims to hand over information about the case to Amtrak, blowing up the case before it ever really begins.

The main takeaway: Amtrak is not a government agency.

Working With The NTSB

In the case of the December 2017 Amtrak derailment, and all other accidents involving aviation, certain types of highway crashes, ship and marine accidents, pipeline incidents, and railroad accidents, the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate. The NTSB is an independent government agency. When requested, the NTSB will assist the military and foreign governments with accident investigation.

The NTSB is the best of the best at what they do. Unlike your typical car accident case in which the local police do the investigation, the NTSB is called in for the most serious and high-profile incidents. 

When the NTSB is called in to investigate a case, some personal injury attorneys will simply let them do their job and file a lawsuit after the heavy lifting is complete. This can be a smart approach because the NTSB is extremely good at what they do and have unlimited resources to collect evidence.

Other attorneys feel it’s best to conduct a separate but complimentary investigation while the NTSB goes to work. A lawyer’s investigation may find that additional factors contributed to a crash, while the NTSB is only concerned with the immediate, obvious and most important details. 

The NTSB also takes a very long time to complete their investigations – the Amtrak Cascades derailment investigation is expected to take up to two years to complete. These investigations are drawn out due to the depth and thoroughness. With state statute of limitations to consider – Washington State’s is three years – it often makes sense for attorneys to do their own investigation as well.

Conclusion: Lawsuits Against Amtrak Are Different

Amtrak is immune to most of the same factors that affect a personal injury case. In many cases, the at-fault person or party is eager to settle with a victim because these cases can quickly become a disaster, putting people into bankruptcy or out of business.

Amtrak doesn’t feel that same pressure. For the most part, it doesn’t matter how many derailments, accidents or bad publicity comes its way – Amtrak will be standing tomorrow. That gives Amtrak incredible negotiating power.

There’s also one other important factor at play. Ordinarily it’s difficult to forecast the total money damages for one person in any injury case. Each personal injury claim requires calculations incorporating medical bills, future care, pain and suffering, and loss of ability. In the case of a train derailment involving Amtrak, however, the math has been simplified by the government. It’s worth no more than $295 million.

The 1997 Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act originally set a $200 million maximum limit for the “allowable awards to all rail passengers, against all defendants, for all claims, including claims for punitive damages, arising from a single accident." That limit was later raised to $295 million in 2015.

In conclusion, lawsuits against Amtrak are obviously unique and require an experienced attorney to handle them. With multiple parties involved and damages in the millions, your attorney should be well versed in every aspect of the case. 

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