HELENA, Mont. — An Illinois law firm filed lawsuits Monday against Amtrak and BNSF Railway on behalf of seven passengers who were on an Amtrak train when it derailed in north-central Montana late last month, killing three and injuring dozens of others.
The lawsuits were filed in federal court in Illinois on behalf of a Massachusetts couple, a Pennsylvania couple, an Indiana couple and a Montana man who were all injured in the Sept. 25 derailment of an Empire Builder train near Joplin, Montana, Clifford Law Offices said.
The lawsuits allege negligence in failing to prevent the derailment and seek damages for injuries and psychological trauma suffered when the train went off the tracks. They also seek to challenge a mandatory arbitration agreement Amtrak put in effect in January 2019.
Sean Driscoll, a partner at Clifford Law Offices, said the agreement denies passengers their constitutional right to a trial by jury if they are injured on an Amtrak train and sets a maximum of $295 million in damages per incident for Amtrak.
The arbitration agreement, but not the cap on damages, also applies to host railroads, such as BNSF, Driscoll said.
Both Amtrak and BNSF have declined to comment on pending litigation.
The Amtrak Empire Builder serves Vancouver. The train that derailed would have been due to pass through the city the morning of Sept. 26 on its way to its terminus in Portland.
Two plaintiffs — Ryan and Hanna Shea of Leverett, Massachusetts — were making their first trip by train when they felt a strong impact and a series of jolts that threw them against the walls as the train car rocked and shook side to side, the couple said in a statement. Their car came to rest off the tracks and tilted to the side. They were able to get out of the train car.
Brandi and Shawnee Gimse of York, Pennsylvania, were in a rail car that tipped on its side, their complaint states.
Morgan and Christopher Grosso of Lafayette, Indiana, were in an observation car when it tilted on its side and skidded about 200 feet 961 meters) before coming to a stop, the law offices said.
Theodore Hastreiter of Whitefish, Montana, suffered physical, psychological and emotional trauma as he witnessed fellow passengers die in the observation rail car, attorneys said.
Last week Rebecca Schneider, of Illinois, whose husband Zachariah Schneider was killed in the crash, filed a wrongful death lawsuit contending Amtrak and BNSF Railway failed to prevent the derailment.
Shortly before the derailment, Zachariah Schneider left Rebecca in the sleeping car and went to sit in the viewing car, where he was “horrifically maimed” and killed, the lawsuit said.
The Amtrak train had two locomotives and 10 cars. Four passenger cars ended up on their sides and a fifth was tilted. Others were off the tracks. The train carried 141 passengers and 16 crew members.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration are investigating the cause of the derailment.