As the fourth anniversary of a deadly Metrolink crash approaches, many survivors of the incident in Southern California say a federal liability cap has left them inadequately compensated.
Just a year after a judge rationed a compensation fund among 126 people, some victims are running out of money for long-term care, counseling and living expenses, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Repeated attempts by the victims to recover more damages have run up against a 1997 federal law, the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act, which set a liability ceiling of $200 million per passenger rail accident.
Without the cap, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman estimated the judgments would probably total $320 million to $350 million or greater if the victims prevailed at trial, the Times said.
Twenty-five people were killed on Sept. 12, 2008, when a Metrolink commuter train struck a Union Pacific freight train head-on in the San Fernando Valley community of Chatsworth. More than 100 people were hurt. It was one of the worst railroad accidents in US history.
Federal investigators later concluded the Metrolink engineer had been texting moments before the crash and ran a red light.
Many victims who were seriously injured remain out of work, retired earlier than expected or have been forced to take less-demanding positions at lower pay, according to the newspaper.
The Times said for those whose spouses, parents and children were killed, the payouts were often less than what other court verdicts and government studies have found to be the dollar value of a human life.
“I have seen people in wheelchairs and people with metal rods in their backs who will never work again,” said Claudia Souser of Camarillo, a mother of three who lost her husband, Doyle. “Some have five surgeries to go and the money is running out. This is an injustice. Four years out, I’ve learned a lot about grief.”
The families of those killed received from $4.2 million to $5 million for an adult and $1.2 million per teenage child. Victims note that the value of a single human life – as determined by cost-benefit analyses conducted by various federal agencies — is between $6 million and $9 million, the Times said. Damages in successful wrongful-death lawsuits can go even higher.
The federally-mandated cap contains no adjustment for inflation, which has been more than 40 percent from 1997 to 2011, when the Metrolink awards were distributed. The cost of medical care in that time has increased 108 percent, the Times said.
“The cap has no relationship to reality,” Jenny Fuller, who lost her husband, Walter, told the newspaper. “The survivors have been so shortchanged.”
Efforts by Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to raise the liability limit have failed so far. They largely blame politically powerful railroads and public transit agencies, which say a higher cap would increase their insurance costs, the Times said.
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