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Blumenthal, Lamb, Heck Introduce Bill to Restore Amtrak Riders’ Legal Rights and Protections

Mar 5, 2020
Press Release
Heck: Amtrak should take steps “to ensure safe rail travel, instead of hiding behind an arbitration clause.”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and U.S. Representatives Conor Lamb (D-PA) and Denny Heck (D-WA) introduced legislation to restore legal rights and protections to Amtrak riders who are currently prevented from seeking justice in the courts and joining together to seek accountability for their claims.

Amtrak quietly implemented its forced arbitration policy and ban on class action suits last January, specifically writing it to be “as broad as legally permissible,” including discrimination and any personal injury claims. The policy also applies to passengers who have tickets purchased for them, including minors. The company put the policy in place after incidents like the 2015 Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 derailment in Philadelphia and the 2017 Amtrak Cascades Train 501 derailment in Washington state. Those two incidents resulted in multi-million dollar settlements and jury verdicts for the victims. If a similar incident were to happen today, passengers would not be able to file lawsuits.

“The Ending Passenger Rail Forced Arbitration Act will put Amtrak on the right track and ensure the traveling public is legally protected,” said Blumenthal. “Amtrak’s current forced arbitration and class action ban policy is simply unfair. Riders unwittingly sign away vital legal rights with the purchase of a ticket. If the worst happens, they are left without legal recourse. This is unacceptable. We must restore consumers’ access to justice and public accountability.”

“Requiring forced arbitration agreements limits consumer rights and protections,” said Lamb. “Amtrak should not preclude their customers from exercising their full rights through a forced arbitration policy.”

“After Amtrak Train 501 derailed onto a busy interstate in my district, we in South Puget Sound saw first-hand the pain and suffering caused by a preventable crash,” said Heck. “But we also saw motorists leave their cars and run toward the wreckage to pull out survivors and help treat the injured. Amtrak should be running toward its responsibility to ensure safe rail travel, instead of hiding behind an arbitration clause. Victims deserve their day in court, and this bill will ensure they get it.”

The legislation is supported by a number of consumer and industry groups, including American Association for Justice, Rail Passengers Association, and Public Citizen.

The full text of the legislation is available here.

Scene of the 2017 Amtrak Cascades 501 derailment near DuPont, Washington.

BACKGROUND

On the morning of December 18, 2017, Amtrak Cascades 501 derailed off an overpass near DuPont, Washington. Several passenger railcars fell onto Interstate 5 and hit multiple highway vehicles. At the time of the accident, 77 passengers, five Amtrak employees, and a Talgo, Inc., technician were on the train. Of those on board, three passengers were killed, and 57 passengers and crewmembers were injured. Eight people on the highway were injured.

Because the Amtrak Cascades 501 crash preceded Amtrak’s forced arbitration policy, victims have been allowed to seek justice in the courts. However, if such an incident were to happen under Amtrak’s current policy, no such remedy in the courts would be available for victims or their families.

On December 18, 2019, the second anniversary of the Amtrak Cascades 501 derailment in DuPont, Reps. Heck, Stephen Lynch (D-MA), and Danny Davis (D-IL) sent a letter to Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson opposing the recently discovered forced arbitration policy.

On Tuesday, Congressman Heck introduced the Passenger Train Safety Act, H.R. 6066, with Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), Rick Larsen (D-WA), and Mark Amodei (R-NV). H.R. 6066 codifies the recommendations of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) following its investigation of the Amtrak Cascades 501 derailment.

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