Minn. SC rules against railway company in suit over fatal crash

Jessica M. Karmasek Apr. 5, 2012, 7:50am


ST. PAUL, Minn. (Legal Newsline) - The Minnesota Supreme Court last week upheld a $21.6 million verdict against a railway company in a lawsuit brought by the families of four young people who were killed when their car collided with one of the company's trains.

The Court, in its March 28 ruling, said Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., or BNSF, is not entitled to a new trial.

The Court explained in its 25-page opinion that any error in the special verdict form and in the instructions to the jury on the railway company's duty of care did not affect the "fairness" or the "integrity" of the judicial proceedings.

"The district court did not abuse its discretion in denying respondent BNSF Railway Company's motion for a new trial on grounds of newly discovered evidence, improperly admitted evidence, or the instruction given to the jury on the adverse inference to be drawn from respondent's failure to produce certain evidence at trial," Justice Alan C. Page wrote in the Court's reversal of a state appeals court ruling, which had granted a new trial.

The district court had instructed the jury, without objection from BNSF, to apply a common-law or "reasonable person" standard of care.

After the jury returned a verdict in the plaintiffs' favor, the railway company moved for a new trial on several grounds, including that it could be held liable only if the plaintiffs proved that the railroad failed to comply with a different standard of care, namely, the standard of care established by applicable federal regulations.

The Court affirmed the district court's denial of the new trial motion.

The lawsuit stems from a Sept. 26, 2003 collision at the Ferry Street crossing in Anoka, Minn.

The collision resulted in the deaths of the four people traveling in a Chevrolet Cavalier: Brian Frazier, 20; Bridgette Shannon, 17; Corey Chase, 20; and Harry Rhoades, 19.

Following the accident, their families filed separate wrongful death lawsuits against BNSF, alleging that the railway company had negligently maintained the warning signals at the crossing and had failed to comply with several state and federal regulations governing maintenance of the tracks and signals.

BNSF, in turn, denied that it had negligently maintained the crossing and asserted that the driver of the Cavalier, Frazier, had driven around the fully-lowered crossing gates into the path of the train.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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