Media Coverage Of Amtrak Crash Ignores Federal Law That Limits Recovery For Victims

In reporting on the recent Amtrak derailment near Philadelphia that killed eight people and injured up to 200 others, broadcast evening news programs and the Sunday morning political talk shows have largely ignored an outdated federal law that could deny financial compensation to victims and their families.

After the horrific Amtrak passenger train crash on May 12, much of the media coverage has focused on the technical causes of the accident and whether increased infrastructure spending might prevent future tragedies.

But a Media Matters analysis of evening news broadcasts and Sunday shows' coverage of the derailment indicates that the major networks have largely ignored how the victims of this crash might be denied financial compensation from Amtrak that will adequately cover their medical expenses going forward. Because of a 1997 federal law that limits the amount of money the victims can recover for their injuries to $200 million, many of the victims -- and the families of those who died -- may get stuck trying to pay for the costs associated with the crash out of their own pockets.

Only the May 17 edition of ABC News' This Week briefly mentioned the outdated law, in a segment with ABC's Chief Legal Affairs Anchor Dan Abrams. As Abrams explained, the $200 million cap is not per victim, but the total amount that can be paid out per incident, regardless of the number of fatalities or extent of survivor injuries:

The 1997 law's failure to adequately compensate victims and families is worth more coverage than just this one segment, especially now that Congress has indicated it might revisit the cap when it debates an Amtrak reauthorization bill later this year. The damage cap was a contentious provision slipped into a bailout for the chronically cash-starved Amtrak. It not only covers all railroad accidents, the cap was arbitrarily decided by Congress and “doesn't take into account fault or cause,” as The Washington Post reported. Moreover, the $200 million figure is static and does not account for inflation, a factor that only compounds the likely result that "taxpayers may wind up footing the bill for some crash victims whose awards will not cover future medical expenses"

According to the Post, the damage cap raised concerns back in 2008 as well, after 25 people were killed and dozens of others injured in a passenger train crash in California. The judge who ruled on the settlement in the California case said that because of the cap, “impossible decisions had to be made. What was given to one victim had to be taken from another. Essentially a Sophie's Choice had to be made on a daily basis. One Sophie's Choice is enough for a lifetime, but over 120 of them defies description. This Court is no stranger to difficult cases or difficult decisions but that does not make the situation any less challenging.” To demonstrate the “horrific job” that the cap imposed on the judge, he explained that “if one were to calculate the monies for the deaths in the first car and the awards necessary for the survivors of the first car, the dollar amount exceeds $120,000,000. Hence, this Court was faced with having very little monies available for the remaining passengers in cars 2 & 3.”

And as The Atlantic's Andrew Cohen explained, this is just one side of the cost-shifting ledger that comes with “tort reform” :

What we see with the Amtrak Act and, eleven years later with the California train wreck, is an allocation of interests that heavily favors corporate interests and heavily burdens the innocent victims of negligent conduct. We can at least be clear with one another about that, right? When it passed the Amtrak Act, Congress prospectively took from the [California train wreck] victims the right to a full day in court, with adequate damages awarded to them by a jury of their fellow citizens. The lawmakers took from these victims and survivors and gave what it had taken to the railway industry, its executives, employees and stockholders.

I won't fight that policy choice on the merits, at least not here or now. Instead, I'll make the case for false pretenses. When the American people are pitched “tort reform” by their politicians, and their politicians lobbyists, I don't believe the pitchees understand that the phrase encompasses the policy choice evidenced by the result in the [California train wreck] case. Instead, I believe the American people often are duped into believing that so-called “tort reform” almost always has to do with a greedy plaintiff, a frivolous lawsuit, an ambulance chaser on the make, and a beleaguered corporation.

Now that another group of victims and families are faced with the consequences of this cap, hopefully more networks than just ABC will use their newscasts to examine why Congress continues to insist on such a policy choice.

Methodology

This report analyzes coverage of the Amtrak derailment on Sunday morning talk shows (ABC's This Week, CBS's Face the Nation, NBC's Meet the Press, and Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday) and four nightly news programs (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, PBS NewsHour, and NBC Nightly News -- Fox has no evening news broadcast). Our analysis includes any segment that discussed the Amtrak crash and the pending lawsuits stemming from it between May 12, 2015 and May 21, 2015, a time period that reflects the date of the accident through the present.

Transcripts from Nexis and internal video archives were used to analyze these segments.