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.

  • Bob Moffitt

    My wife, who is studying to become a paralegal, participated in a mock jury for this case as BNSF prepared its defense. She found it to be a very interesting insight on the legal system.

  • Bob Moffitt Too

    Glad to see BNSF finally receive their due.

  • Aaron

    Being a part of a family that knows the family of the driver of the car, I’m glad to see that BNSF is getting their due here. Hopefully now, they will shut up and pay out, and the families of all of the victims can move on with their lives without this case hanging over their heads.

  • Mark Gisleson

    BNSF clearly engage in bad behavior, but I did not know that losing a civil trial was the exact same thing as establishing the facts of what actually happened.

    The most critical factor in that fatal accident was the failure of the driver to pay attention. I live next to two high speed rail lines and even on the third floor a block away from the one elevated line, I can literally feel trains going by.

    At some point we need to reintroduce personal responsibility to our culture. And again, damn BNSF to hell for tampering with the evidence, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a responsibility to look both ways before crossing train tracks. Had this been a car of pot-smoking hippies, we’d still be hearing jokes about the Darwin Awards.

  • Bob Collins

    //I can literally feel trains going by. At some point we need to reintroduce personal responsibility to our culture.

    I wonder how many people slow down at green lights?

  • Mark Gisleson

    //I wonder how many people slow down at green lights?

    I certainly do. The fact the light is green doesn’t mean an intersection isn’t an inherently dangerous place where idiots turn right into traffic and jaywalkers scoot across intersections against the light, not to mention emergency vehicles.

    Did you know that it’s illegal to change lanes while crossing an intersection? Bully for you if you did know that but based on personal observation, it’s clear many Minnesota drivers have no clue about that law.

    I’m also very slow to enter intersections after the light changes, because we have become a state of red light runners and if no one gets killed, the cops don’t have time to straighten out liability.

    But mostly a railroad intersection is not a green light. In rural areas like where I grew up, most don’t have lights. I guess rural folks are smarter than city people since we don’t need lights to avoid being hit by trains.

    I’m not happy people are dead, but I’m amazed that what passes for news opinion in this town is overwhelmingly so angry at the railroad’s lie that they seem not to have noticed that no one would be dead if the driver had bothered to glance both ways before crossing.

    Suing railroads doesn’t stop train-car fatalities. Looking both ways does.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Mark – Pretty tough one to pull the “serve’s ’em right” card out for.

    I currently live a couple of blocks from some tracks ( on the right side, fortunately).

    There have been several pedestrian fatalities in the half dozen years that I’ve lived here. Each one of which was a suicide or an inebriated individual.

    Even in THOSE cases, I haven’t played the ‘serve’s ’em right”, because my primary thoughts were of compassion for the innocent train workers who – due to no fault of their own – participated in the deaths.

    Is that where you’re coming from?

  • LetsBeHonest

    Railroads have enough protection from the law as it is written already. Their liability in many cases is thrown back on the Federal government and this case just didn’t fall under that definition. When they screw up they should just own up to it, not assign phony blame. Rail companies have a history of fighting tooth and nail against every single new crossing gate they’re required to put in, and every new safety regulation. They’ve also had their way historically with regard to right of ways and eminent domain. Hence the saying, “you’ve been railroaded.” Its an insult to injury that these families had to wait 9 years to have the courts finally rule in their favor. Its also fair to say that to defend the railroad with some clap trap about personal responsibility is, in itself, irresponsible, and offensive to the families of the victims. I find it rich that the same people who spout fountains about “personal responsibility” seem to have zero interest in there being any corporate responsibility whatsoever. Coincidence? Probably not.

  • Mark Gisleson

    There is much to dislike about corporations, and I’m sure Bob laughed loudly at the thought that I’m pro-corporate. For what it’s worth, nothing would make me happier than to see all U.S. railroads nationalized. The railroads have not been good stewards of their assets, and those right of ways should be upgraded for high speed rail (or pipelines, or fiber optics, etc.).

    No, what galls me about this case is the aggressive way in which the judge oversaw the case and the selective way the Strib reported on it (locking the comments to make damned sure no one inserted a contrary thought). Someone died, so someone has to pay — that to me is a very odd approach to an accident scene.

    But yes, I’m being a troll here and I apologize for that. This was a tragic case in which there was fault on all sides, even if only one side ends up paying.