BNSF says Amtrak accident victims cannot be sued
Victims of the deadly Amtrak crash in rural Missouri cannot sue for damages because they checked the required box that acknowledges a lengthy set of terms and conditions when buying tickets, BNSF Railway asserts.
The Fort Worth, Texas, freight railroad filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday against some passengers who were injured and the heirs of those who died in a crash on June 27 at a rural railroad crossing near Mindon, Missouri.
The BNSF is seeking a preliminary injunction that forces victims to arbitrate with the railroad rather than pursue their claims in court. The railroad is also asking a federal judge to stop pending lawsuits in Missouri courts.
Surviving passengers and heirs of the dead began filing lawsuits shortly after the crash that killed three passengers, all from the Kansas City area, and injured dozens. The train was traveling between Los Angeles and Chicago on Southwest Chief Road when it hit a dump truck that blocked the track at the Porsche Prairie Avenue crossing in Chariton County, which lacks booms, bells or lights. The truck driver was also killed.
The Amtrak train was running on a rail owned and operated by BNSF, which had been warned for years of the danger at the very steep crossing.
The lawsuit alleges that passengers who purchase Amtrak tickets must click a box to agree to the company’s terms and conditions. The full terms are over 20,000 words long and include a binding arbitration agreement that requires passengers to resolve disputes with the railroad through arbitration rather than the courts. The BNSF argues that these terms also apply to freight rail.
The rail company argued in its lawsuit: “BNSF is a host railroad for which Amtrak owes compensation, and therefore, BNSF is expressly entitled to enforce the arbitration agreement.”
In support of their legal arguments, BNSF lawyers included as an illustrative example of the agreement, containing a two-sentence statement referring – at the same time – to the “Binding Arbitration Agreement and the Rules Relating to COVID Travel”.
Arbitration is a commonly used tool for settling disputes with private arbitrators rather than going through the general courts.
Among the defendants were the families of the three Kansas City-area passengers who died in the crash, Kim Holsabley, Rachel Cook and Binh Phan. It remained unclear Wednesday whether the BNSF intends to apply the same argument to all current plaintiffs or any future plaintiffs.
The BNSF did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A regional Amtrak official declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Kansas City attorney Grant Davis, who represents more than 70 plaintiffs suing the railroad, said the BNSF’s argument was “unreasonable.”
“The Constitution of Missouri and the Constitution of the United States give everyone the right to a trial by jury,” he told The Star. They are trying to get rid of that in this case. We believe they are wrong under the law and given the facts of these cases.”
On Wednesday, the state court named Davis the lead plaintiff’s attorney. There are multiple lawsuits pending around the court, but the judge has consolidated the plaintiff’s cases for purposes of discovery. this means
Davis said the BNSF did not appear in the arbitration agreement for Amtrak. He does not believe that any of his clients have agreed to an arbitration agreement as the BNSF claims.
“It is very disturbing that one of the railways is suing these victims in an attempt to take advantage of a very questionable alleged arbitration agreement on a different railway,” he said.
The civil petition comes nearly three months after BNSF Railroad opened another civil case, jointly filed with Amtrak in federal court, in which the company blamed Billy Barton II, a truck driver for MS Contracting, for causing the accident. Company lawyers argued that Barton had negligently operated the truck, claiming that the train was “clearly visible” and that Barton had failed to waive his right of way.