Legislation introduced in the United States Congress seeks to restore Amtrak passengers’ rights to file lawsuits against the railroad company in the event of a derailment, accident, crash, dispute, or other incidents that cause injuries or death.
U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut introduced the Ending Passenger Rail Forced Arbitration Act in the Senate to address Amtrak’s “unjust and unfair” forced arbitration and class action ban policies. U.S. Representative Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania introduced a companion bill in the House. The two lawmakers introduced similar legislation in 2020.
In 2019, Amtrak established an arbitration clause with the purchase of a rail ticket that effectively stripped away rail passengers’ right to sue the company for damages. Instead of pursuing claims in U.S. courts, those with legal disputes against Amtrak are instead forced into arbitration. Most train passengers are likely unaware of the forced arbitration clause with the purchase of an Amtrak ticket.
What is Forced Arbitration?
Arbitration is an alternative method to resolve disputes between parties. Both sides present their facts and arguments before an arbitrator or a panel. The arbitrator or panel decides the rules, then weighs the facts and arguments from both sides before deciding how to settle the dispute.
Unlike voluntary arbitration where both parties agree on arbitration as the method to resolve a dispute, forced arbitration is when a company requires binding arbitration to resolve disputes with consumers as a condition of purchasing a service or product. Forced arbitration not only requires consumers to relinquish their right to sue, it also locks consumers in to whatever the arbitrator decides; there is no right to appeal, and the results are kept from the public.
Why is Forced Arbitration Bad for Consumers?
Most consumers do not know they have consented to forced arbitration. Companies are known to bury forced arbitration clauses in lengthy terms of service agreements.
Consumers are locked in to resolving a dispute in a way that favors companies. You only have one option to resolve the dispute: arbitration. Worse, arbitration clauses generally name a hand-selected arbitrator that gives the company an advantage. Even if you win the dispute, the company may be able to appeal the decision by filing a complaint in court. As stated, consumers do not have this right under forced arbitration.
Arbitration is private. The outcome of court cases is part of the public record. A dispute in arbitration can be kept private, shielding the company from scrutiny. In other words, it is basically a secret legal system, with virtually no safeguards from abuse.
“Forced arbitration benefits companies, not consumers,” says veteran trial attorney Ronald L. M. Goldman, who has decades of experience litigating train accident cases. Following the 2008 Chatsworth Metrolink train collision in California, Ron was selected to the litigation leadership as a member of the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee. He also litigated the fatal 2012 CSX Coal Train Derailment in Ellicott City, Maryland.
“One who is a passenger on a train, or any common carrier, should not have their constitutional right to a jury trial ripped from them, especially based on a legal fiction of consent,” Goldman says. “Before the distortion of the definition of consent, solely for the purpose of valuing corporate profit over consumer protection, it had always been the law that consent must be freely and knowingly given. It is a sad testament that our courts have bastardized that concept thereby reducing the Seventh Amendment to our Constitution, which plainly guarantees the right to a jury trial in civil cases, an empty promise.”
Amtrak Legislation Introduced Following Montana Derailment
In the aftermath of the fatal Montana train derailment in September of 2021, several claimants filed lawsuits against Amtrak. The Amtrak lawsuits seek to challenge the railroad’s arbitration clause, which limits the total damages to victims of an incident at $295 million. That may seem like a lot of money, but any cap has the potential to severely limit compensation to the numerous families that lose loved ones and to those facing many years of treatment and therapy after sustaining life-altering injuries.
Of course, the legislation and efforts to secure passengers’ rights to file train accident lawsuits is not just about pursuing compensation. It is also about holding Amtrak accountable for any negligence that caused or contributed to an accident and deterring the company from cutting corners or sidestepping important safety issues that may threaten passenger safety.
It is worth remembering that Amtrak is taxpayer-funded, receiving roughly $2 billion in government subsidies. This begs the question: how can a company that receives public funds be shielded from public scrutiny that comes with civil litigation? Injured passengers, and families of those who died in an Amtrak disaster should not be relegated to a “star chamber” proceeding that is conducted in secret and essentially is accountable to no one.
If the Ending Passenger Rail Forced Arbitration Act passes, Amtrak passengers would share the same legal remedies allowed airline passengers, who do have the right to file lawsuits in civil court to resolve disputes.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is still actively investigating the cause of the derailment in Montana. Officials expect a report on the incident to be issued within the next 12-18 months.
Train Accident Attorneys Representing Clients Nationwide
Train accident lawyers from the national law firm of Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman have extensive experience litigating cases against Amtrak and other major rail companies. Our mission is not only to earn maximum compensation for our clients, it is also to advocate for improved rail safety to deter accidents from happening in the future.
Here are a few reasons to consider hiring Baum Hedlund to represent your interests:
- Over $4 billion won across all areas of practice
- Extensive experience in complex train accident litigation
- Successfully resolved over 85 train crash or derailment cases
- Appointed to Plaintiffs’ Steering Committees for Metrolink Glendale and Chatsworth
- Voted “Best Lawyers® Best Law Firms” by our clients and peers