Transportation Funding Bill Set to Increase Damage Cap for Train Crashes and NHTSA Fines for Auto Companies

More money will be available to victims of the Amtrak crash in Philadelphia during May as Congress is set to increase the damage cap for train crashes by nearly 50% to $295 million, according to a compromise reached by members of the United States Senate and House of Representatives on the transportation bill today.

The $200 million per crash cap on damages to all victims involved in a single railroad accident was adopted by Congress in 1997 as Congress overhauled the operation of Amtrak. The damage cap was previously hit in litigation surrounding the 2008 train collision in Chatsworth, California. Although some attempted to lift the cap then, there was ultimately not enough support to do so.

Following the Philadelphia accident, there were renewed calls for the cap to be lifted. Over the summer, the Senate agreed to the measure when it passed its version of the transportation bill. Yet, the proposal was in doubt because of concerns that the House would not adopt it. The House did not touch the $200 million limit when it passed its version of the spending transportation bill.

The compromise bill will also provide about $200 million in funding for railroads to implement positive train control. Jim McEldrew, the head of our personal injury lawyers and a former President of the Academy of Rail Labor Attorneys, has previously called for Congress to force railroad companies to adopt PTC, as it is known.

As we noted previously, the transportation bill does not touch the Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act, which passed the Senate unanimously earlier this year. Although we had previously speculated that the auto whistleblower law could be wrapped up in with the transportation bill, Congress ultimately decided not to do so. We hope that the House will instead take on this issue next year as part of its investigation into auto safety measures.

Insert: Got the above section wrong. The FAST Act did adopt the Motor Vehicle Safety Whistleblower Act.

Notable among the auto safety initiatives which were included was an increase in the maximum per incident fine for delayed recalls that could be imposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The fine cap will be increased from $35 million to $105 million by the bill. The NHTSA has been handing out record fines over the past few years as it struggles to enforce the laws promoting recalls and accident reporting by auto manufacturers.

The legislation will now be voted on by both chambers of Congress and then signed by President Obama. Approval is expected by all three parties.

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