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Linda Chalat
Linda Chalat
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Damages Cap Limits Adequate Compensation in Train Wreck

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Twenty-five people died and more than 100 were injured when a Los Angeles Metrolink commuter train collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train in 2008. Yesterday a judge divided $200 million among victims of the disastrous collision of two trains but said he was forced to short-change them and make "impossible decisions" because of a federal cap on damages.

Federal safety officials determined that the passenger train’s engineer didn’t stop at a red signal. The National Transportation Safety Board found that the engineer had been texting seconds before he drove through the signal. Injured passengers and families of those killed will now receive anywhere from about $12,000 to $9 million, the money was awarded based on degree of injury. A passenger who suffered no physical injuries received the $12,000 and $9 million went to a Zambian exchange student who was studying fashion. She was left brain damaged and will need $18 million to cover future medical expenses.

The judge ruled that $4.2 million would go to the surviving family of each adult killed and $1.2 million will be paid for each child who died. Attorneys for the victims had requested between $320 million and $350 million, and if each case were tried separately, the potential verdict would be close to or even greater than that amount, speculated the judge. He noted that "What was given to one victim had to be taken from another."

Veolia Environment, a company based in France, and Metrolink, which provides commuter rail service in Southern California, agreed to pay the $200 million award. Veolia’s subsidiary employed the engineer cited by federal officials as responsible for the crash.

The judge said that many victims in the train’s first passenger car presented emergency room and medical bills that exceeded $1 million. He said the damages were so extensive that the court was faced with having little money left over for the victims traveling in the second and third cars.

But under federal law, a $200 million liability cap is in place for damages involving passenger train accidents. Congress set the cap purportedly to keep train systems operating when faced with major lawsuits. So the law is now protecting a foreign company from fully compensating victims of a horrendous accident.

On Monday, 17 members of California’s congressional delegation sent a letter to Veolia’s chairman urging the company to voluntarily provide additional compensation. The letter cited British Petroleum’s actions in providing additional funding to victims of the Gulf of Mexico oil rig blowout despite a federal cap on damages. Victims of the negligence of others should not be required to depend on the voluntary sympathetic support of corporations – they should have the right to seek full compensation in a court of law.