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Why Can't You Sue Amtrak for a Crash?

By Alex Sirek | Last updated on
One of the most stressful aspects of traveling is the fact that something could go terribly wrong with your transportation. With countless movies showing horrific plane crashes, it's easy to get unnecessarily anxious. But you can take solace knowing that these crashes are incredibly uncommon. But what about train crashes? Train crashes and derailments are also extremely rare, but a deadly pair of Amtrak crashes last week — a derailment in Missouri and a car strike in California — has people wondering about the safety of these trains. But if your train crashes, it only makes sense for you to sue the company that caused it, right? Well, Amtrak would beg to differ.

In The Event of a Crash, Can You Sue Amtrak?

Short answer: no. An arbitration clause placed onto tickets in January 2019 forces disputes into arbitration, without the ability to go before a judge or jury. Purchasing an Amtrak ticket means entering into a contract, and the terms of that contract enters passengers into a mandatory arbitration agreement. Julia Duncan, senior director for government affairs at the American Association for Justice, called this clause unusually broad and detailed in 2019, when Amtrak first quietly slipped the language into its tickets. The clause covers scenarios from mundane ticketing complaints up to wrongful death. It even covers situations involving minors who had adults buy tickets for them. It also bars passengers from joining together in a class-action lawsuit. This means that, even in the event of a deadly train derailment, an arbitrator would be the person making the decision on a settlement, rather than a judge or jury. "Most forced arbitration clauses do not go into much detail about what they cover," she said," Duncan said. In certain situations, arbitration can have advantages. However, it's highly debated whether death and life-altering injuries should be handled using arbitration. Consumer advocates and others also argue that this clause also works to discourage formal complaints for smaller violations because of the inconvenience involved.

What Can Train Passengers Do?

Even riders who have noticed the unusual nature of the clause before purchasing their tickets cannot do much about it. The Rail Passengers Association, which criticized the clause, claims that passengers could go to federal court to try to prove that federal law prevents their claim from being settled by arbitration. This is difficult to prove, however. And even so, the agreement doubles down on the forced arbitration by stating that an arbitrator would resolve any challenge of the clause's validity or enforceability. On the bright side for consumers, a bill has been introduced in Congress with hopes of prohibiting Amtrak's mandatory arbitration clause. The "Ending Passenger Rail Forced Arbitration Act" targets Amtrak specifically, but would also prevent similar clauses from arising in the future. This bill is not close to passage, although the bill's sponsors are likely to try and generate some momentum after the most recent accidents. In the meantime, travelers wary of Amtrak's sneaky legal dealings may want to try riding the Greyhound or taking to the skies instead. Although, as we say in other similar ticketing-related disputes: Always read the fine print.

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