Amtrak likely faces hundreds of millions of dollars in claims from victims of the derailment of a northeast regional train at Frankford Junction in Philadelphia Tuesday night, according to personal-injury lawyers who specialize in transportation accidents.
Because Congress capped such payouts for Amtrak in 1997, money to compensate victims probably will fall short of what is needed, these lawyers say.
Under the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act, damages paid by the government to people injured in Amtrak derailments and families of those passengers killed was limited to $200 million per crash. But with eight killed and about 200 of the 238 passengers injured, some very seriously, claims from this week's crash almost surely will exceed that amount.
"You can assume almost everyone suffered some kind of injury," said lawyer Nancy Winkler, whose firm, Eisenberg Rothweiler Winkler Eisenberg & Jeck, P.C. specialized in accident cases. "When you have someone who is alive and needs ongoing medical care for the rest of their life, the cost can be $15 million or $20 million or more."
Tom Kline, of the personal injury firm of Kline & Specter, said he anticipated that given the speed of the train, reportedly 102 miles per hour at the time of the derailment, there likely will be numerous serious injuries.
"Given the enormity of the accident, even without assessing the wage loss of some of the folks on the train who seem to be significant earners, I would not believe that a $200 million fund would be adequate," Kline said.
Some victims already have obtained legal representation. The personal injury law firm of Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky, P.C. said that it is representing two crash victims who had been referred to the firm. Others are actively soliciting clients. Silvers, Langsam & Weitzman, P.C., also known as MyPhillyLawyer, issued a release Wednesday offering condolences to the victims, while noting that it was representing victims of another Amtrak crash, in North Carolina in March.
Many of the key facts the derailment remain unknown, and it is unclear whether operator error or mechanical failure caused the crash. But there is concensus among lawyers who have represented accident victims in similarly catastrophic crashes that it is unlikely Amtrak will escape liability.
That is in part because the train was traveling at more than twice the speed limit when it entered the dangerous curve in Frankford Junction, where it derailed. Another fatal crash occurred nearby in 1943 claiming 79 lives. Adding to Amtrak's potential liability is the rail line's failure to install an electronic train control system on the curve that would have detected the train's excessive speed and automatically applied its brakes, lawyers say.
"This looks like a preventable disaster," James Ronca, a lawyer with the personal injury firm of Anapol Schwartz. "I handle a lot of bus crashes and in every instance, if people had been following the safety rules the disaster would have been preventable."
One possible outcome in this case, Kline and Winkler said, is that the government will set up a compensation fund, along the lines of funds set up for 9/11 survivors and the victims of the BP gulf oil disaster. Such funds typically are run by administrators like attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who administered the 9/11 victims fund and functioned as a mediator sorting out claims in the Pennsylvania State University child molestation cases. Like the Penn State case, Amtrak's liability at some point may seem so clear cut that settlement efforts begin quickly, Kline said. He said he anticipated any litigation over the Amtrak crash to take no more than three years.