Saturday, July 30, 2011

Recent decision in train crash case generates debate about tort reform

In 1997, Congress passed the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act, which caps the amount of damages awards to rail passengers, against all defendants, for all claims, including claims for punitive damages, arising from a single accident or incident at $200,000,000. This provision is different from other typical tort reform statutes in that it imposes a limit per accident, as oppsed to per victim.  Evidently, the provision won't have much of an effect in an accident that involves a small number of victims or mild injuries.  But, for the same reason, in a case where there are a lot of victims or in which the injuries are more severe, the effect of the statute can be that of all other tort reform measures: to limit or eliminate access by victims to full compensation.

Now comes news that this possible effect has taken place.  Back in 2008 there was a train crash in Southern California in which 24 people died and over 100 others were injured because the train engineer was texting while driving and missed a signal.  The claims that were filed on behalf of the victims were finally decided recently and the judge who decided that total damages were $264 million, which meant that $64 million won't be paid.

The judge issued a 33-page ruling in which he reportedly struggles with fact some victims will not be compensated fully.  The Pop Tort has a story on the decision here with links to stories in the LA Times and other sources which cite the judge as saying "There is not enough money to compensate the victims for future medical care and past pain and suffering," and added that "Impossible decisions had to be made … What was given to one victim had to be taken from another." 

In response to the news, The Atlantic published an article (here) by Andrew Cohen arguing that
The Amtrak Reform Act indeed unfairly "limits the ability of American judges and juries to perform their traditional roles in determing award amounts in civil cases where liability has been proven"  and that "for saving Amtrak, the American people (who own Amtrak, remember) were given the gift of so-called "tort reform." The new law meant that the average citizen could no longer use the justice system to determine the fair amount of damages in mass casualty cases. The statute told judges, juries and victims alike that federal lawmakers had determined, in advance, the amount of pain corporate America would be allowed to suffer at the hands of legitimate plaintiffs who had proven gross negligence cases in court. The railway industry cheered the arbitrary cap. So did the insurance companies. Certainty is a good thing in the world of the law and universe of business."

Not everyone agrees with this point of view, however.  In response to the article in The Atlantic, the blog Point of Law published a comment (here) in which it describes Cohen's article as an "intellectually disingenuous piece" and argues that the statute "has very little to do with tort reform."  In support of this last point, the author argues that "no reformer I know proposes per-accident caps or economics damages caps" and that the statute was not passed because of the tort reform movement but as a pure subsidy.  He then concludes that "the "per-accident" and "per-incident" language of ARAA is "meant to permit rail operators to have certainty about how much insurance they need to purchase and reduce their costs." 

Yet, this is totally consistent with tort reform efforts, isn't it?  The idea is to have statutes enacted that allow a predetermined limit to possible liability.  Call it tort reform, subsudy, tomatos or tomatoes, the idea is the same.

Point of Law's better argument is that a $200 million cap is adequate - although whether the amount of the cap is adequate in any particular case depends on the facts of each particular case.  Maybe it is adequate in this case, but maybe it won't be in another.  The question is whether it is a good idea to impose a cap knowing it may not be adequate in some cases.  The answer to that question depends, in large part, on the answer to another question: what benefits are we - the travelers/consumers - getting in return?

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