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Metrolink Train Accident Settlement Illustrates Dangers of Tort Reform

Earlier this month, a judge carved up a $200 million settlement fund to be divided among dozens of people who had filed personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits against Southern California’s commuter rail network and other defendants. For many of these plaintiffs, the settlement money will barely cover medical costs, leave alone the crushing expenses they can expect over the rest of their lifetime. For Atlanta car accident lawyers, the limited liability rail operators enjoy illustrates the dangers of tort reform.

In September 2008, the Metrolink commuter train crashed into a freight train near Los Angeles, killing twenty-five people and injuring more than 100 people. Many of these people sustained serious injuries because they were in the first car that sustained maximum impact from the collision. Many people suffered spinal cord injuries and head injuries, and some of them still continue to receive treatment for these injuries close to three years after the accident.

However, Metrolink’s liability in the event of an accident was capped at $200 million. The cap was enforced as part of the Amtrak Reform an Accountability Act in 1997, which was meant to help rail operators become more profitable. A $200 million settlement seems fair, unless you are dealing with a catastrophic accident, in which 25 people have died and more than 100 people are severely injured. Investigations showed that the accident had been caused by the carelessness of the Metrolink engineer at the controls, who had been texting at the time of the accident.

For the Los Angeles judge who was given the unenviable task of dividing $200 million among all the defendants, every day presented a Sophie’s choice-type dilemma. Many of these personal injury and wrongful death plaintiffs deserved to be compensated far more than they were under the terms of the settlement. Many of the people who lost loved ones in the accident lost breadwinners, and these people face an immense financial struggle ahead. One victim of the accident, a foreign exchange student, suffered serious brain injuries, and is still in rehabilitation. She received the biggest settlement of more than $9 million, but her caregivers expect her to need therapy for several more years. As the judge noted in his ruling, one person who died in the accident left behind a special needs child. The average age of children lost in accident was nineteen years.

Since the settlement, lawmakers have called on another defendant in the Metrolink case, a French company that hired the engineer blamed for the accident, to step up and pay out more than its share of the liability, in order to compensate victims. No Atlanta personal injury attorney, however, would be holding his breath. The defendants in this case have walked away, citing the cap as the end of their responsibility for the accident. This is what happens when legislation protects the responsibility of corporate interests, against the very basic rights of innocent Americans.