Who is Liable When an Amtrak Train Derails?

Under the common-law doctrine of a tort, anyone whose negligence or carelessness is directly responsible for harm to another is considered liable for any damages. If the liable and injured parties cannot reach an agreement on the matter of liability or the amount of damages owed to the victim, the victim has the right to have a court and jury make such decisions and then enforce their decisions if necessary.

A recent Amtrak derailment accident known as the Amtrak 188 Derailment will serve as a background case to explain how physical and financial liability is determined in courts having jurisdiction in these matters.

Amtrak as a “Common Carrier”

Under federal law, Amtrak is considered a common carrier because it agrees to carry passengers and/or cargo over fixed routes to established destinations for a previously established fee.

As a common carrier, Amtrak is held to the legal doctrine of absolute liability for any damage to goods being transported or the accidental injury or death of a passenger. In simple terms, this means that an accidental injury is all that is necessary to establish Amtrak’s liability for paying compensation to the accident victims. As any plaintiff’s attorney will concede, the amount of the damages awarded is often the most sensitive point of contention.

Damage Caps and Amtrak’s Financial Liability

Unlike “traditional” cases of federal liability which are usually held under the “local practice and procedure doctrine” (the conduct of a lawsuit in a state court determines how matters are handled in a local federal court), the federal courts use their own set of rules when hearing an Amtrak case. Even though the mere fact that an accident occurred is sufficient to determine Amtrak’s liability, most plaintiffs’ attorneys believe these procedures are biased in favor of the federal government or one of its agencies such as Amtrak.

According to the provisions set forth in the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997 (aka 111 Stat. 2570 or Public Law 105–134—Dec. 2, 1997), Amtrak’s liability in derailment injury cases is limited to a total of $200 million per accident. Although this sum may seem both generous and adequate, it could easily be exhausted in the presence of relatively few injuries that would require a lifetime of supervised medical care.

In response to the potential injustice of accident victims recovering a settlement that is inadequate compensation for the extent of their injuries, Jeff Blumenthal of the Philadelphia Business Journal reports that Congress agreed to a temporary increase to $295 million in the existing settlement cap of $200 million. The increase will be applied retroactively and in exchange for an agreement by Amtrak not to contest any reasonable damage claims arising from the May 12, 2015, Amtrak 188 derailment, which killed eight and injured dozens.


In this article, we have seen how Amtrak is granted at least some limited liability via the damage cap set forth in the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act of 1997; from the economic consequences of an accident. Amtrak is thus able to claim the “moral” position of accepting almost a general liability for injuries in a derailment accident but knowing in advance what its maximum liability exposure will be. Additionally, Amtrak will usually ask the court to enjoin (prohibit) any discussions of settlement negotiations and settlement terms as a tactic to “encourage” acceptance of an out-of-court settlement.

Considering the above-presented information, it should be obvious that a successful personal injury claim against Amtrak will require an attorney who has past dealings with this government corporation and how liability caps are applied in the federal court system. A Personal Injury Lawyer Washington DC trusts with experience in similar cases should be familiar with previous attempts by Amtrak to force an unfair settlement offer onto an injured client.

A special thanks to our authors at Brynn Law for their insight into personal injury cases.


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