The Metrolink commuter rail system and Connex Railroad have asked a Los Angeles federal court to approve a $200 million settlement fund for victims of a September 2008 head-crash between a commuter train and a freight train in Chatsworth, California, according to the Associated Press. If the court goes along with the plan, the two companies would seem to be off the hook for any additional legal liability for the crash. Actually, victims are pushing Congress to pass new railroad legislation that would not let companies, besides the railroad involved in a mass transit crash, to receive the benefit of a 200 million dollar cap or limit.
Investigators maintain that the commuter train engineer, who was subcontracted to Metrolink by Connex, was texting when his train ran a red light and crashed into the freight train. The engineer and 24 others died in the collision, and over one hundred passengers were injured.
The $200 million settlement amount, which would be parceled out under court supervision to survivors and family members, is the maximum allowed for a train accident under federal law. About 100 personal injury lawsuits from this incident are pending in Los Angeles County Court against Metrolink and Connex. Is it enough to fairly compensate all those suffering injuries, or those who lost lives? Not according to some victims.
The fund is, however, something of a double-edged sword for victims: While it might speed up the process for an out-of-court settlement of the many pending claims, the specific amounts handed out to could be far less than what some of them already owe in medical bills.
For this reason, lawyers for many of the victims believe this proposal is just an 11th-hour delaying tactic for Metrolink and Connex to avoid accepting full responsibility for the disaster, according to the Los Angeles Times. As a result, some victims and their families may try to continue to pursue their clams in court even if the settlement gets the go-ahead. Federal legislation to bump up the liability cap is also a possibility, with one big and logical “fix” to cap the total claims against the involved railroad, but not to cap a railroad disaster claims against manufacturers and suppliers of faulty or defective equipment supplied or sold to the involved railroad..
Given that the medical bills and other damages could total as high as $600 million under some estimates, shouldn’t the victims of this disaster who were innocently making their evening commute home have the option to get their day in court? And, should Congress change this unfair and arbitrary cap? The answers are still pending.