Amtrak’s binding arbitration policy under attack from Congress

Written by David C. Lester, Managing Editor
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Over the past several weeks, Railway Track & Structures has been reporting on the new language printed on Amtrak tickets that prevents customers from suing the railroad in the event of an accident or other grievance a passenger may have with the railroad. For our initial report on this topic, please click here.

In addition to the initial report, we also reported recently that this policy had gotten the attention of Congress, and many were not happy with it. This past week, that dissatisfaction grew some teeth. The Connecticut Mirror reports that Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), marshaled 13 Senate Democrats to write a letter to Amtrak President Richard Anderson, expressing the group’s concern over the new policy.

The letter began with this opening paragraph:

“We write to express our concern that Amtrak’s mandatory arbitration and class action policy is gravely imperiling  Americans’ access to justice and public accountability. As our national railroad, Amtrak has a responsibility to ensure the traveling public – including victims of crashes – have their day in court. We demand that Amtrak immediately eliminate this anti-consumer arbitration and class action policy.”

The letter went on to say that “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.” In addition, the senators said that “Amtrak’s agreement is particularly disturbing due to its broadness of scope. [This scope] includes claims of discrimination, and any personal injury claims including gross negligence and wrongful death.” The letter wraps up with “please explain your choice to implement mandatory arbitration and class action policy earlier this year – including why Amtrak continues to defend its decision. We urge you to reverse course and expect a response by no later than December 23, 2019.”

Instead of waiting until 12/23/19, Amtrak president Richard Anderson wrote the Senators quickly, saying that the new policy allows the railroad to “expedite resolution of claims and to reduce unnecessary litigation costs.” Anderson went on to say that “arbitration provides a resolution in less time – generally within a year of filing – by avoiding unnecessary discovery and other time-consuming proceedings, and the often years-long wait for a trial date on overcrowded court dockets.” Anderson also said “agreements to arbitrate are desirable precisely because they trade the procedures of the federal courts for the simplicity, informality, and expedition of arbitration.”

The Connecticut Mirror reports that Blumenthal, upon receiving Anderson’s response, said that it was a “typical response” when this issue has arisen with other companies at other times. “They say it costs less, it’s quicker, but the rights of plaintiffs are vastly undercut. Amtrak should not be able to deny them a day in court.”

The Connecticut Mirror also reports that Sen. Blumenthal introduced a bill, the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal (FAIR) Act, with 38 co-sponsors in the Senate, which seeks to eliminate forced arbitration agreements when civil rights, employment, and consumer claims are involved.

RT&S will continue to monitor this story and report on new developments.

For more information, visit The Connecticut Mirror.

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