Watch CBS News

Family Of Man Killed In Amtrak Derailment Files Suit, But Legal Loophole May Limit How Much You Can Recover From Amtrak

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Lawsuits are being filed in connection with a deadly derailment involving an Amtrak train that departed from Chicago this past weekend, but getting hurt on an Amtrak train means you may not get any more for your injuries.

Following two high-profile derailments that cost Amtrak millions, the rail operator introduced an arbitration clause which could keep victims out of court and the proceedings behind closed doors. Now, following the Amtrak derailment in Montana that killed three people, that new clause will be put to the test.

As CBS 2's Charlie De Mar reported Tuesday night, 141 passengers and 17 crewmembers were aboard a now-mangled Amtrak Empire Builder train traveling from Chicago to Seattle when the train derailed in rural northern Montana on Saturday.

Zach Schneider from southwest Illinois was among the three people killed. He was traveling with his wife, Rebecca, and on Tuesday, a lawsuit was filed on her behalf.

De Mar asked Sean Jeans-Gail of the national nonprofit the Rail Passengers Association whether it is fair to say that most passengers don't even know that they're agreeing to this when they buy a ticket.

"Yeah, I think that's completely fair," Jeans-Gail said.

The Rail Passengers Association serves as a voice for riders.

In 2019, Amtrak quietly introduced an arbitration clause when buying a ticket, which forces any legal claims or disputes while onboard directly into arbitration — often behind closed doors with no right to go before a jury — and the payouts can be less.

"This will be a test case for this new arbitration policy," Jeans-Gail said. "We have not had the kind of mass-casualty incident."

"They should not be allowed to deny their passengers the right to have their day in court," said attorney Sean Driscoll of the Clifford Law Offices.

Driscoll and the Chicago law firm for which he works previously won a nearly $60 million settlement against Amtrak for passengers aboard the train that derailed in DuPont, Washington in 2017, but that was before the arbitration clause. Critics say the new policy was designed to protect Amtrak from those inflated payouts.

Driscoll currently represents a passenger injured in the Montana derailment.

"And if Amtrak can't get them to point A and point B safely, they should be allowed to sit before a jury - and Amtrak should not be in the position to deny them that right through an arbitration agreement," he said.

Legislation was introduced to try to give passengers some of the power back and help them recoup damages should something happen aboard an Amtrak train. The legislation was tied into a larger infrastructure bill.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) is a sponsor. He says the arbitration policy is "plain wrong."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.