Compensation awards to victims of Friday's Metrolink train crash could easily overwhelm a $200-million cap that Congress imposed 11 years ago on a railroad's liability in any one accident.
The limit, adopted as part of the reauthorization of Amtrak in 1997, has never been tested on constitutional grounds, and lawyers and legal scholars differ in their predictions of whether the government will prevail in restricting payouts.
Based on recent wrongful death and catastrophic injury awards in the range of $5 million to $10 million, the amount of damages likely to result from the latest crash -- which left 25 dead and 135 injured -- could for the first time exceed the congressional cap, said Brian J. Panish, who represents a dozen victims of the 2005 Metrolink crash near Glendale and was retained Tuesday on a Chatsworth liability case.
He criticized the damage limit as part of the federal government's "bailout" of Amtrak and said Metrolink should waive the cap to ensure fair settlements for all involved.
"They're responsible. They should compensate the victims," he said.
Randy McMurray of the law firm founded by the late Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., which also represents claimants in the Glendale crash, agrees that a test of the cap is now likely.
"Challenging the constitutionality of caps on damages is something we would certainly do in this case," McMurray said of the expected Chatsworth lawsuits. "Certainly there are due-process grounds; the fact that constitutionally it's unfair that the railroad industry should be protected when everybody else isn't. If this was Chrysler or General Motors, they wouldn't be protected, so why should an entity that operates a railroad?"
Legal scholars, however, point to limits imposed on numerous categories of liability, including medical malpractice, airliner crashes, workers' compensation and defective pharmaceuticals in arguing that courts are unlikely to lift the railroads' liability limit.
"I don't see any basis for challenging the cap," said UCLA law professor Richard Abel, a civil litigation expert. He pointed to cases as far back as a century ago in which courts have upheld similar ceilings.
His colleague at the law school and the author of books on modern class-action suits and civil procedure, Stephen C. Yeazell, agreed that challenging the cap would be tough, but said lawyers might argue that Congress intended it to apply only to Amtrak. "The legislative history suggests that Congress was concerned only with Amtrak," he said, adding that "another portion of the same statute [requires] Amtrak, but not other rail carriers, to purchase $200 million in liability insurance."
The debate over Metrolink's potential vulnerability is academic at this point, as there hasn't yet been a case in which juries have awarded damages anywhere near the $200-million limit.
"What will have to happen is we'll have to get a judgment in excess of the cap before we can appeal it. We're years away from having that judicially determined," McMurray said. "No court has jurisdiction to determine the constitutionality of the cap until a judgment exceeds it."
Despite the possible limit on damages, advocates of government responsibility argue that there is value to lawsuits alleging negligence beyond the possible monetary awards.
"Litigation also provides information, whether about a train crash or medical malpractice. It forces that information into the public arena and can result in new regulations" that might prevent a recurrence, said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, the national nonprofit group committed to protecting health, safety and democracy.
In the Chatsworth case, Metrolink's failure to adopt available collision-avoidance technology has been spotlighted and legal action demanding damages could pressure the government entity to take steps to ensure that a preventable accident never happens again, she said.
Litigation in the Chatsworth claims may proceed more quickly than in the Glendale crash, which involved more than one potentially responsible party. A Los Angeles jury convicted Juan Manuel Alvarez in June of 11 counts of first-degree murder for causing what was then the deadliest crash in Metrolink history by leaving his sport utility vehicle on the tracks in an abortive suicide attempt.
The bulk of the cases stemming from the Jan. 26, 2005, Glendale crash were consolidated because they hinged on the same legal questions, and lawyers expect the same to occur in handling the Chatsworth claims.
In the Glendale litigation, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Emilie H. Elias will first hear three cases to determine Metrolink's liability in a fatality, a serious injury and a case of lesser injury. The determination of responsibility in those lawsuits will then be applied to the remaining victims' cases.
Damages are generally computed on the basis of a victim's lost future wages, his or her state of health at the time of the accident, medical costs, dependent care costs and physical pain and mental anguish, said J. Clark Aristei, another of the railroad claim litigators.
"Every case is different," Aristei said.
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Of 86 injured Metrolink riders who were admitted to Los Angeles County hospitals after Friday's crash, 32 remained hospitalized Tuesday. Five were in critical condition, eight in serious condition, four in stable condition and 15 in fair or good condition.
Source: Times research