Who is Liable When an Amtrak Train Derails?

Common-law doctrine of tort states that anyone who is careless and negligent is responsible for those who are harmed as a result and is liable for damages. The victim or victims have the right to take their case to court and have a jury decide on a liability agreement if the victim(s) and liable parties cannot decide amongst themselves. Court involvement can also help enforce the decision they come to. The recent Amtrak 188 Derailment serves as a case study to explain how physical and financial liability is determined by courts with jurisdiction over situations like this.

Amtrak is a “Common Carrier”

Amtrak is considered a common carrier under federal law because it agrees to carry passengers and/or cargo through planned routes to fixed destinations for a designated fee. Because of their status as “common carrier,” Amtrak is held to a legal doctrine of total liability in the event of damage to any transported goods or accidental injury or death of any passengers. All that is required of victims for a claim is the event of accidental injury because Amtrak is totally liable, they are automatically responsible for paying compensation. The amount of damages is a matter of contention and is not any fixed amount.

Financial Liability and Damage Caps

Federal courts use their own set of rules when adjudicating an Amtrak case. Usually cases of federal liability are held under local practice and procedure doctrine–how the conduct of a lawsuit is handled in a state court decides how things are handled in local federal court). Although the occurrence of an incident is enough to determine liability, it is believed that procedures are biased in favor of the federal government or government agencies.

In 1997, the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act (Public Law 105-134-Dec. 2, 1997) set provisions detailing the limit of damages Amtrak is liable to pay at $200 million per accident. This seems like a perfectly adequate cap, but it could be used up quickly by injuries resulting in a lifetime of medical care. In light of this prospective unfairness, Congress agreed to a temporary increase to the cap in the form of $295 million to compensate victims for the extent of their injuries. The increase will be retroactively applied and in exchange for Amtrak’s agreement to refrain from contesting reasonable damage claims arising from the 2015 Amtrak 188 derailment which claimed eight people and left dozens injured.

Pursuing a Personal Injury Claim against Amtrak

Amtrak is able to claim a “moral” position for accepting such a general liability for injuries in the case of derailment, but they did know in advance what the maximum amount of damages they would be liable for. Typically Amtrak will also ask the court to prohibit reporting or discussion of settlement terms and negotiations so that an out of court settlement is encouraged. Pursuing a personal injury claim requires an attorney with ample experience with government entities and federal liability caps in order to be successful. Consult a personal injury lawyer such as the car accident lawyer Central Phoenix, AZ locals trust who has been involved with similar cases will be acquainted with Amtrak and their attempts to force an inadequate settlement onto injured persons.


Thanks to authors at Kamper Estrada LLP for their insight into Personal Injury.