You buy an Amtrak ticket. Your train derails. You are severely injured. And you can’t sue. Why? Blame the fine print in your ticket rules.
Back in January, Amtrak quietly revised the language of its ticket terms and conditions. Any dispute, including a deadly crash, must be resolved by arbitration. Individual and class action lawsuits are explicitly prohibited. Arbitration is the settlement of a dispute by a “neutral” party rather than going to court.
An Amtrak spokesperson said “the clause was added to resolve customer claims more efficiently.”
Be wary of the word “efficiently” whenever it is being used by a railroad or airline.
Democratic party politicians are now taking notice.
Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a senior member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees Amtrak, said:
“There’s no reason why consumer complaints about Amtrak should involve mandatory arbitration. Consumers might wish to have arbitration … but they shouldn’t be forced to.”
Now 14 Senate Democrats including four presidential candidates (Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren) have signed a letter to Amtrak urging it to abandon its arbitration policy. Key points include:
Claims subject to forced arbitration are relegated to private forums where powerful defendants, like Amtrak, can stack the deck against claimants and cover up wrongdoing. Faced with these daunting odds, many potential claimants decline to file claims in the first place. Moreover, the closed-door nature of forced arbitration lacks transparency in the form of public proceedings or hearings. This is particularly troubling in instances of major injury and fatality – removing the public’s ability to stay informed of issues that impact their health and safety…
There is no public review of decisions to ensure the arbitrator got it right, and federal law does not require that arbitrators have legal training or even follow the law. Forced arbitration can also cost thousands of dollars that most Americans cannot afford…
It is also concerning that claims of gross negligence and wrongful death would be forced into arbitration…
Amtrak’s decision to disallow class action claims is equally problematic. The new agreement discourages passengers from making formal complaints about small violations, and by not allowing passengers to band together to file suit, they are less likely to file at all.
You can read the full letter here (.pdf).
I’m also not a favor of arbitration clauses, especially from a railroad my tax dollars help to fund. Even the threat of a lawsuit is enough to hold many accountable. Amtrak travelers should not be excluded from requesting a trial by jury or joining a class action lawsuit to settle their grievances. While Amtrak’s fine print switcheroo may be legal, it is not ethical. If Amtrak truly stands behind its product, it should have nothing to fear.