In September 2008, a train accident near Chatsworth California killed 25 passengers and injured more than 135. Since commuter Metrolink was so clearly at fault for this accident, observers have said the company could have been on the hook for nearly $400 million in damages if not for a 1997 law that limits the liability for train accidents at $200 million. While this is great for Metrolink, it leaves hundreds of wrongful death and catastrophic injury victims out of the funds they deserve. This week, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman Jr. concluded the case with a ruling that emphasizes the incredibly difficult task of allotting funds to victims that deserve much more.

Judge Lichtman’s powerful ruling detailed the haunting 2008 train accident and the “Sophie’s Choice” the Court was forced to make by taking funds away from one family to give them to another. This process “boiled down to triage,” he wrote. “This Court was forced to do precisely what the first responders did on the day of the accident. It had to categorize the injuries and victims and make the awards on the basis of what the future would hold for many of the families and victims.” Following an accident that robbed families of children or parents, and left even more with irreparable injuries, these decisions could be nothing short of impossible.

Writing for The Atlantic, CBS News legal editor Andrew Cohen explains that the Court was limited to $200 million in damages due to the 1997 Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act, which stipulated that “the aggregate allowable awards to all rail passengers, against all defendants, for all crimes, including claims for punitive damages, arising from a single accident or incident, shall not exceed $200,000,000.” While this is certainly a lot of money, it falls far short when a “single accident” causes dozens of wrongful deaths and catastrophic injuries. In this case, Judge Lichtman predicted that the funds awarded to victims would have exceeded $350 million if it weren’t for the 1997 law. Read Judge Lichtman’s full opinion here.

Cohen worries that this is the unexpected consequence of tort reform, which is meant to shield individuals and corporations from ambitious trial attorneys looking for a big pay day. But too often, legislation that limits liability following a major accident is devastating for families that have lost loved ones, and victims who no longer have the physical skills necessary to hold a job and provide for their families. California officials have asked Veolia, the other company involved in the 2008 train accident, to volunteer an extra $64 million to compensate the victims of wrongful death and catastrophic injuries, but the company has kept mum. “It is clear that no words and no amount of money can undo that tragic day,” a spokesman told the New York Daily News earlier this month.

Congress is considering legislation to raise the liability limit for future train accidents, but past efforts have consistently failed. California Rep. Elton Gallegly, formerly a proponent of tort reform, proposed a plan to increase the liability limit to $275 million after a previous plan to increase the number to $500 million failed the year before. We’ll keep you posted with any information about those attempts to raise the liability limit.

Photo credit: aussiegall

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Andy Gillin received his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of California at Berkeley and his law degree from the University of Chicago. He is the managing partner of GJEL Accident Attorneys and has written and lectured in the field of plaintiffs’ personal injury law for numerous organizations. Since 1972 he has been helping seriously injured victims throughout northern California fight & win their personal injury cases. Andy is one of the top awarded & recognized wrongful death lawyers in northern California.