Supreme Court: No new trial in long-BNSF case

It’s hard to believe it’s been nine years since four people met their end at the front of a Burlington Northern train that wiped out their car at the railroad crossing on Ferry Street in Anoka. The guard gate never came down, the lights never illuminated and the four young people never had a chance.

Brian Frazier, 20, of Ham Lake, Bridgette Shannon,17, of Ramsey, Corey Chase, 20, of Coon Rapids, and Harry Rhoades Jr., 19, of Blaine were killed.

In 2008, an Anoka County jury awarded the victims’ families $21.6 million. A Star Tribune investigation found evidence of tampering in some of the crash data provided in the trial. after the families’ attorneys argued that the deadly collision was caused by a malfunctioning signal.

Witnesses said the car — a Cavalier — was in its proper lane when it was hit, disputing the railroad’s assertion it had driven around lowered gates.

The Court of Appeals ordered a new trial because the jury had been instructed to apply a “reasonable person standard of care” rather than a standard based on compliance with federal regulation. Family members argued BNSF was working the judicial system.

A court sanctioned the railroad because it allowed destruction of an “event recorder” system at the crossing, and failed to preserve a tape of an event recorder in the locomotive.

Today, the Minnesota Supreme Court put an end to it, overturning the Court of Appeals and ruling the railroad will not get a new trial. Justice Alan Page said the instructions to the jury and the verdict did not “affect the fairness and integrity of the proceedings.”

In his opinion today, Justice Page called out BNSF:

Our review of the record indicates that the allegedly erroneous standard of care was not limited to the disputed jury instruction and special verdict question; rather, it pervaded the entire trial. Nor were appellants the only parties to rely on the common-law standard of care. Instead, BNSF itself sought to convince the jury that it was not negligent under a common-law, rather than a regulatory-compliance, standard of care.

From its opening statement to the jury, BNSF asserted that the gates at the Ferry Street crossing worked, and worked properly, on the night of the accident:

This unfortunate accident happened as a result of the inexcusable conduct of a 19-year-old young man who disregarded the flashing lights and the down crossing gate, who disregarded the oncoming train with the whistle sounding and the lights flashing and drove around a fully-lowered crossing gate in front of the train. . . . [T]he evidence will show [] that this state-of-the-art BNSF signal system provided proper and adequate warning and was working as intended [on] September 26, 2003.

Page said the railroad argued its entire case on “common law negligence” and then demanded a new trial on an entirely different theory — regulatory compliance.

He said granting a new trial to BNSF after it “knowingly tried the case under (what we have assumed, but not determined, to be) the wrong standard” would be unfair.

Here’s the full decision.

“I can tell you that there wasn’t a lot of screaming and shouting,” Mark Bradford, an attorney for the family of Brian Frazier, the driver of the car, said about a conference call with families of the victims after the ruling today. “Everyone was fairly sullen because everyone knows nothing will bring back their kids.”

Bradford said he doesn’t believe there are any lingering issues that might lead Burlington Northern Santa Fe to push the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The decision didn’t really rest on a lot of legal technical issues,” he said. “It was a common sense decision that when you as a party choose to litigate and follow a strategy, when that strategy doesn’t turn out to benefit your client and you end up with an adverse decision, you can’t come in and try again under a new strategy. You sink or swim with the result. This was a common-sense, well-reasoned decision that didn’t need a lot of legal analysis.”

There was no dissent among the seven Supreme Court justices in the case.

(update 12:33 p.m.) – In a statement to MPR News this afternoon, BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth conceded the case:

We have deep sympathy for the families of the individuals involved in this tragic event and are sad for their loss.

While we are disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision, we respect the judicial process and the finality of the decision.