Equipment raises a passenger car from the Empire Builder that derailed near Joplin on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. Credit: Colin Thompson / Havre Daily News. May not be republished without permission of Havre Daily News.

Three weeks after Amtrak’s Empire Builder derailed along a remote stretch of track on Montana’s Hi-Line, killing three and injuring scores more, a dozen lawsuits have been filed by passengers injured in the deadliest railroad accident in the United States since 2017. 

But those lawsuits against Amtrak and BNSF Railway, which owns the track the train was derailed on, might run into trouble because of a never-before-tested clause recently added to Amtrak’s tickets that states passengers can’t sue the railroad in the event of an accident. 

The Empire Builder, which runs daily between Chicago and Seattle and Portland, was traveling westward near Joplin on Sept. 25, when eight of its 10 cars derailed, some falling on their side. Within hours, the National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Railroad Administration dispatched investigators to the scene to determine what happened. According to NTSB, the train was traveling below the speed limit for that section of track, suggesting the derailment might have been the result of a broken rail or other faulty equipment. Preliminary findings are expected in the coming weeks, though it’s likely to take many months before the investigation is complete. 

Three days after the derailment, the wife of a 28-year-old Illinois man killed in the wreck filed the first lawsuit against Amtrak and BNSF. Since then, at least 11 other lawsuits have been filed in U.S. District Court in Illinois, where the train originated, mostly by passengers represented by Clifford Law Offices. Clifford is the same firm that represented a number of passengers who sued Amtrak following an earlier fatal wreck south of Seattle on the Cascades routes. In that December 2017 incident, three people were killed when a train took a curve too quickly. 

Not long after that wreck, in January 2019, Amtrak introduced a clause stating that by purchasing a ticket, passengers renounced their right to sue the company in court over injuries sustained in a wreck and instead agreed to arbitrate any dispute. Critics have described the clause as “unconstitutional,” and some in Congress have introduced legislation to reverse it. But Amtrak has defended it, telling the Washington Post in 2020 that it “provides a resolution for our customers in less time — generally well 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.”

Kristofer Riddle, an attorney with Clifford Law Offices representing some of the passengers injured in the Montana wreck, disagreed, saying the clause allows Amtrak to dodge its responsibilities. The Empire Builder incident will be the first time the clause has been tested in court, and Riddle said he believes it won’t stand.

“It’s a system that has a veil pulled over it,” he said of the arbitration clause. “It doesn’t allow for public accountability. It’s bad policy and it’s inconsistent with the Constitution.”

An Amtrak spokesperson declined to respond to questions from Montana Free Press about the legal challenges, saying by email, “We are deeply saddened by the loss of life and injuries due to the derailment of the Empire Builder. … It is inappropriate for us to comment further on pending litigation.”

Among those suing Amtrak is Justin Ruddell of Klamath Falls, Oregon, who suffered numerous injuries in the wreck, including two broken vertebrae and five broken ribs. He was in the bathroom at the time of the derailment and said the outside door was ripped away as the passenger car toppled over, exposing him to dirt, gravel and waste. 

“I thought I was going to die,” he said later. “I saw death and destruction around me that I will never be able to forget.” 

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.