Amtrak Crash Investigation Yielding Conflicting Reports

Payouts to crash victims could be capped
May 17, 2015 Updated: May 17, 2015

PHILADELPHIA—As repair crews work to restore rail service following the deadly Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia, investigators are trying to determine the reason for the train’s acceleration. They are sorting through conflicting reports about an object striking its windshield.

National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday that he wanted to “downplay” the idea that damage to the windshield might have come from someone firing a shot at the train shortly before it flew off the tracks, killing eight people and injuring more than 200 others.

“I’ve seen the fracture pattern; it looks like something about the size of a grapefruit, if you will, and it did not even penetrate the entire windshield,” Sumwalt said.

Officials said an assistant conductor on the derailed train said she heard the Amtrak engineer talking with a regional train engineer and both said their trains had been hit by objects. But Sumwalt said the regional train engineer recalls no such conversation, and investigators had listened to the dispatch tape and heard no communications from the Amtrak engineer to the dispatch center to say that something had struck the train.

“But, nevertheless, we do have this mark on the windshield of the Amtrak train, so we certainly want to trace that lead down,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Sumwalt acknowledged, however, in an interview on Fox News Sunday that train engines are routinely struck by various projectiles without catastrophic consequences.

Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor trains will resume service Monday in “complete compliance” with federal safety orders following last week’s deadly derailment, officials announced Sunday.

Accelerated Before Turn

Investigators remain focused on the acceleration of the train as it approached the curve, finally reaching 106 mph as it entered the 50-mph stretch, and only managing to slow down slightly before the crash.

A crime scene investigator looks inside a train car after a train wreck, Tuesday, May 12, 2015, in Philadelphia. An Amtrak train headed to New York City derailed and crashed in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Joseph Kaczmarek)
A crime scene investigator looks inside a train car after a train wreck, Tuesday, May 12, 2015, in Philadelphia. An Amtrak train heading to New York City derailed and crashed in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Joseph Kaczmarek)

“The only way that an operable train can accelerate would be if the engineer pushed the throttle forward. And … the event recorder does record throttle movement. We will be looking at that to see if that corresponds to the increase in the speed of the train,” Sumwalt told CNN.

The Amtrak engineer, who was among those injured in the crash, told authorities that he does not recall anything in the few minutes before it happened.

Meanwhile, almost 20 people injured in the train crash remain in Philadelphia hospitals, five in critical condition but all expected to survive.

Payouts

For the first time, Amtrak could face a $200 million payout to train crash victims—the limit set by Congress. But that may be too low to cover the costs of the eight lives lost and more than 200 people injured in last week’s derailment in Philadelphia.

That payout cap for a single passenger rail incident was part of a late effort in 1997 to pass a law that would rescue Amtrak from financial ruin and help it one day become independent.

Emergency personnel help a passenger at the scene of a train wreck, Tuesday, May 12, 2015, in Philadelphia. An Amtrak train headed to New York City derailed and crashed in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Joseph Kaczmarek)
Emergency personnel help a passenger at the scene of Amtrak train wreck in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Joseph Kaczmarek)

Adjusted for inflation, which the law does not consider, that amount would be just under $300 million now. And Amtrak is still far from independent.

An Associated Press review of past cases found that Amtrak has never before been liable for a $200 million payout for a single passenger rail incident. The Philadelphia crash could be the first time the liability ceiling—designed specifically for Amtrak — would actually apply to the railroad.

It’s not known how high the costs of victims’ deaths and injuries from Tuesday’s crash will run.

Lawsuits

On Friday, an Amtrak employee filed the first lawsuit, asking for more than $150,000 in damages. Amtrak employees are not limited by the $200 million cap because it only applies to passengers.

“I don’t think Amtrak has ever faced a situation like this, and since they own the Northeast Corridor, they’re 100 percent on the hook,” said Frank Wilner, author of the book, “Amtrak: Past, Present, Future.”

Using past passenger rail accidents as a guide, some lawyers expect damages from the crash to be similar to a 2008 accident in Los Angeles, which resulted in a $200 million payout to victims. In that crash, the train’s engineer was texting and didn’t stop at a red signal when the train collided head-on with a freight train, killing 25 people and injuring more than 100.

Investigators and first responders work near the wreckage of an Amtrak passenger train carrying more than 200 passengers from Washington, DC to New York that derailed late last night May 13, 2015 in north Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At least five people were killed and more than 50 others were injured in the crash. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Investigators and first responders at the wreckage of the Amtrak passenger train that was carrying more than 200 passengers from Washington to New York in Philadelphia on May 13, 2015. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The money was paid to victims by Metrolink, which provides commuter rail service in Southern California, and Veolia Environment, a French company that operated the rail service at the time.

A judge divided the $200 million among the victims, with sums between $12,000 and $9 million. In some cases, lawyers said the amounts were far less than the projected costs of medical care needed as a result of the crash.

Paul Kiesel, a Los Angeles attorney who represented victims from the 2008 crash, said $200 million “can be just a drop in a bucket to compensate people who are the victims of passenger rail collisions in America.”

But Kiesel said he is not aware of another passenger rail incident in which the $200 million cap has been a factor.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said he was unable to say whether Amtrak had ever paid $200 million in damages for a single passenger rail incident.

Victims

Among the almost 20 victims from the Philadelphia crash still in the hospital, five are in critical condition.

HEWLETT, NY - MAY 15: Midshipmen from the U.S Naval academy carry Midshipman Justin Zemser to a waiting car after his funeral on May 15, 2015 in Hewlett New York. Zemser was one of eight people who were killed in the derailment of an Amtrak train on May 12th in Philadelphia. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
Midshipmen from the U.S. Naval academy carry the casket of Midshipman Justin Zemser during his funeral in Hewlett, N.Y., on May 15, 2015. Zemser died in the Amtrak crash . (Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

It’s difficult to put a price on a person’s life, said Howard Spier, a Miami-based lawyer and former president of the Academy of Rail Labor Attorneys. But the people traveling on the Amtrak train that crashed last week are typically successful, he said.

“The more you’ve got going on in your life, the more your damages are worth,” Spier said.

Though passenger rail crashes that lead to $200 million victim settlements have been rare in America, liability has long been a concern.

“Limits on liability are essential for our economic future,” former Amtrak President Tom Downs told Congress in 1996.

In 1997, the year the liability cap was passed, Amtrak faced bankruptcy, and Congress had been trying for three years to come up with a plan to turn the struggling rail line into a profitable company without government subsidies.

Among issues challenging Amtrak financially were liability for all accidents involving Amtrak, even if they weren’t Amtrak’s fault. Establishing a cap on damages would help Amtrak purchase insurance at a reasonable cost.

At the time, Amtrak had about $200 million in liability insurance, government auditors said in a 1995 report. It was facing lawsuits totaling more than $200 million for a range of incidents.

A $200 million limit on liability for passenger rail accidents was added to a compromise bill at the end of the debates.

“That is what we are trying to do, is have some sort of quantifiable limit so we will know what the costs would be in the most extreme circumstances,” then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) said on the Senate floor.

Democrats supported the $200 million cap, too.

“Amtrak passengers will have to bear a limit on Amtrak’s liability to them, much the same way that the airlines limit their liability to passengers,” said then-Sen. Earnest Hollings (D-S.C.).