We’ve written enough about how caps on damages cause anguish and despair for victims (here, here). But until today, I think we’ve never really understood the agony of caps for judges who are forced to apply them.
In LA on September 12, 2008, 25 people died and 135 were injured, some severely, in a horrific train collision, which “hurled passengers aboard Metrolink No. 111 through three cars.”
The cause was Robert Sanchez, “a contract engineer for Metrolink who ran a red signal while sending a text message to a teenage train buff.” He was employed by former Metrolink contract operator Connex, a subsidiary of Veolia Environment, a French conglomerate.
A decade earlier, Congress struck a deal to bail out Amtrak, setting a $200 million overall liability cap for all rail accidents - not just Amtrak's - no matter how horrific the crash, reckless the rail company or people killed or injured. The law says, “(2) The aggregate allowable awards to all rail passengers, against all defendants, for all claims, including claims for punitive damages, arising from a single accident or incident, shall not exceed $200,000,000.”
When the crash occurred, people immediately knew that the need for compensation for these victims would far exceed this $200 million cap. But of course, Congress did nothing at all to help and the result is, once again, horrible anguish for the victims. In addition, we now see clearly the agony for the judge who was forced to apply this cap - a judge who would have awarded $264 million based on the evidence presented in these cases (victims had collectively sought $350 million).
Because of the cap, said Superior Court Judge Peter D. Lichtman in a 33-page ruling, "There is not enough money to compensate the victims for future medical care and past pain and suffering," So, he said,
"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."
The LA Times put it this way:
Who is more deserving of a $1-million compensation award, a woman whose organs were crushed when a train table "guillotined" her abdomen during the Metrolink crash three years ago or the man who has physically healed but whose depression and anger have cost him his job, marriage and sound mind?
The judge awarded the most he could to Racheal Mofya:
Racheal was a Zambian exchange student who was studying fashion, had been accepted into medical school at the time of the crash. But when she was catapulted across the first Metrolink car, she suffered a fractured skull, massive brain damage and other disfiguring injuries.
Now she can barely walk and lives with a sister in Minnesota. She hopes to move to an assisted-living home.
While her attorney requested $18 million, Lichtman awarded her $9 million, the highest of any victim.
"She'll never hold a job," said Michael McQueen, her Camarillo- based lawyer. "And the tragedy is, all she knows is she got on a train.
"From a vivacious, energetic, joyful person to a confused (and) frightened girl."
Here’s more from the LA Times:
Families who lost children, like the parents of 19-year-old Cal State Northridge student Aida Magdaleno, will receive on average $1.2 million when the payouts are available in about two months.
Juan Magdaleno, the victim's brother, said the families were aware of the constraints on Lichtman in dividing up the compensation fund but are angered by the federal cap that he says disrespects accident victims.
"Aida's life and the lives of others weren't for sale. Their lives didn't have a price until the accident. And with the cap, the more people die, the less their lives were worth," said an incredulous Magdaleno, who also criticized Metrolink and its operators for dragging their feet on recommended safety improvements to avert other collisions. "There's nothing that will bring my sister back, but one of the things we want in her memory is for change to occur."
Members of Congress and attorneys in the case have tried to shame Veolia into paying what they owe these victims, “much like British Petroleum exceeded its $75 million cap for the Gulf oil spill by billions.” (For more on BP and oil industry caps, see here.)
U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Simi Valley, called for Veolia to "end Sophie's Choices," referring to the choice between two equally unbearable options.
"Now that Judge Lichtman has made his ruling, I once again call upon Veolia to do the right thing and fairly compensate the victims," Gallegly said in a statement. "The company was grossly negligent." …
Veolia, however, has steadfastly declined to pay more than the $200 million limit.
Imagine, a company with less decency than BP.