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Public Citizen Sues Amtrak to Protect Riders

Rail operator has big presence in Texas

An Amtrak train arrives in Austin from Los Angeles

Texans and other Americans shouldn’t be forced to waive their rights to sue Amtrak if they are injured by the rail operator, according to a lawsuit Public Citizen filed in U.S. District Court for  the District of Columbia this week.

Amtrak’s forced arbitration clause is unconstitutional, exceeds the authority given Amtrak by Congress and should be removed from the rail company’s ticketing, Public Citizen told the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

Beginning in 2019, Amtrak amended the terms and conditions for its passenger rail transportation services to include an arbitration provision that forces individuals into a private justice system that has no judge or jury, has limited right to appeal and is not bound by precedent. Amtrak’s arbitration provision states that it is “intended to be as broad as legally possible” – applying not only to individuals who buy tickets, but to “family members, minor passengers, colleagues and companies” for whom tickets are bought.

The provision specifies a litany of claims that cannot be heard in court, including negligence, gross negligence, disfigurement, wrongful death, medical and hospital expenses, discrimination and failure to accommodate an actual or perceived disability. The clause also prohibits class actions.

Unlike the densely populated East Coast, sprawling Texas isn’t known for heavy ridership on passenger trains because so many people rely on automobiles and airplanes for travel. But Amtrak maintains a significant presence in the state.

Nineteen Amtrak stations dot the Texas landscape, including depots in Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, Houston and San Antonio. Passengers can ride Amtrak all the way across state east to west, starting with the Texas Eagle in Texarkana and making stops in Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio. At San Antonio, riders making the cross-state trip connect to the Sunset Limited, a train on a separate line that takes them all the way to El Paso on the western edge of the state. Texas’ largest city – Houston – is also serviced by Amtrak on the Sunset Limited line.

Amtrak registered 381,615 passengers in Texas in 2018, down slightly from 393,484.

In 2016, Amtrak agreed to pay up to $265 million to settle claims in the aftermath of a 2015 crash in Philadelphia that killed eight and injured more than 200. Had its forced arbitration provision been in place at the time, the victims and their families would not have been able to use the courts to hold Amtrak accountable.

“Shame on Amtrak. The U.S. government has no business forcing arbitration on those who use public services. Amtrak’s arbitration provision would allow it to avoid public accountability if it has placed passengers in unsafe conditions or engaged in discrimination,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “Passengers should not have to forfeit their right to a day in court as a condition of using government rail service.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Weissman and Patrick Llewellyn, an attorney at Public Citizen – two individuals who have traveled on Amtrak and plan to do so again in 2020.

Amtrak, which began operating in 1971, is an institution of the federal government that must comply with the U.S. Constitution and acts only pursuant to authority delegated by Congress. Congress directed Amtrak to provide passenger rail services to America’s travelers; it did not authorize Amtrak to force travelers to waive their right to go to court if they are injured by Amtrak, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit alleges that Amtrak’s forced arbitration clause violates the Constitution in three ways. First, it forces passengers to either agree to give up their First Amendment right to go to court or find a different mode of transportation. Second, it forces passengers to take claims against a government entity into a private arbitration system that lacks the constitutional protections of a federal court. And third, it threatens the institutional integrity of the judicial branch by creating a wholly separate, private litigation process that lacks meaningful judicial oversight.

The complaint asks the court to declare that Amtrak lacks authority to impose forced arbitration on ticket purchasers and rail passengers, declare that doing so violates the Constitution, bar Amtrak from enforcing its forced arbitration provision and order Amtrak to remove the provision from its terms and conditions.

Over the past decade, forced arbitration clauses have gone from being the exception to the rule in consumer and employment contracts, and now they’re almost impossible to avoid. Even by the most conservative estimates, the number of forced arbitration agreements in effect in the U.S. is at least 2.5 times the population, and the overwhelming majority of these agreements waive a person’s right to join others in a class action. Public Citizen recently compiled a wall of shame showing that more than 100 major companies use these clauses to deny justice to customers and workers.