KARE: Legal loophole shields negligent light-rail operator

In mixing light-rail trains with vehicular and pedestrian traffic, transit planners and lawmakers forgot to make a change in the law that is preventing a light-rail train operator from being charged in the death of a driver, KARE 11 reports in an investigation.

Abdellatif El Maarouf blew through stop signals and slammed his westbound Green Line train into a car crossing the intersection at Eustis and University, killing the driver and badly injuring a passenger.

“He ignored a stop signal, two stop signals that you could see,” said Peter Westlake, the brother of Nic Westlake, who died in the collision. “He ignored parallel traffic, he ignored active cross traffic and entered into that intersection.”

But he can’t be charged under Minnesota traffic laws because under the state’s law, trains aren’t motor vehicles, KARE says.

It obtained a memo from the Ramsey County Attorney that said because El Maarouf was not speeding, on his phone, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, he cannot be charged with felony gross negligence.

His memo declining prosecution reads: “In the opinion of this office, the investigation clearly establishes that Mr El Maarouf operated a light rail train in an unsafe manner which was responsible for the collision with the motor vehicle on July 15, 2017.” The memo says the train operator “disobeyed the LRT traffic signal’s horizontal line.”

However, the prosecutor wrote, “In the Traffic Code, the definition of “vehicle” specifically excludes a rail train.”

The memo continued: “Thus there can be no criminal charges in this case for any violation of the Traffic Code because it does not apply to the operation of a rail train.”

A lawmaker is promising to close the loophole.

The train operator was fired after the crash but retained his job when the union representing the Metro Transit workers appealed the termination. He is no longer allowed to drive the trains, however.

  • Gary F

    So, he is still employed by Metro Transit. I wonder how he will use his great judgement skills in some other position for them.

  • Mike Worcester

    //However, the prosecutor wrote, “In the Traffic Code, the definition of “vehicle” specifically excludes a rail train.”

    Which is fascinating and makes me curious how long that exemption has been in code. Is it some sort of throwback to….something? Written before the advent of commuter rail like we see in Minnesota now?

    • boB from WA

      My uneducated guess is that this written a century ago when there were many more railed vehicles [interurban lines, streetcars, and regular railroads]

      • And when railroads basically told the politicians what to do.

      • Mike Worcester

        That’s basically what I guessed also. It’s a holdover.

  • Mike

    This is exactly the type of situation that engenders anti-union sentiment. The transit union chose to defend him simply because he was a member, regardless of his malfeasance or incompetence. Ditto the cops. Deadly circumstances either way, with no real consequences.

    • Kassie

      Unions are not allowed to pick and choose who they defend, if they do, they get sued and lose. They need to defend all members. But people love to blame unions for things, so why not blame them for this too?

      • Mike

        If, as you say, they can’t exercise discretion currently, then the rules need to be changed.

        Hiding behind legalisms and closing the ranks are no replacement for common sense and ethical behavior, especially when the consequences for the affected party are so dire.

    • Erik Petersen

      this has nothing to do with public sector unions

      • Mike

        Kassie would disagree with you. (See below.)

        • Erik Petersen

          not obvious to me she would. There is a statute that defines rail as not motorized vehicles. That’s the crux of the biscuit here.

    • There’s nothing wrong with defending a union member. And the contracts aren’t imposed on management. But it’s the responsibility of management to prove under the contract negotiated that a member should be fired.

      Think of it like public defenders. Oh, wait, people don’t like them either.

      • Mike

        Except this is an employment situation, not a court of law, so it’s not exactly the same. I understand that unions have an obligation to defend their members, but when the facts are clear that deadly negligence was involved, I expect them – and management – to act ethically.

        • Jerry

          Unions don’t make it impossible for people to be fired. Unions make it so so management has to do their homework.

        • Jay T. Berken

          “to act ethically”

          Seriously, all that is going on skirting the law, and this is what we put our foot down about.

        • Not quite. Union activity and unions are governed by the National Labor Relations Board. There’s very much a legal process involved in transactions under the contract. The union’s job is to see the procedures under the contract are followed. It’s a legal document.

          “the facts are clear that deadly negligence are involved.”

          And I presume the contract recognizes that. If the contract is followed properly, the guy loses his job. The fact he didn’t suggests that the procedures and cause listed in the contract were not followed.

          My guess is that a criminal conviction would be just cause . That was impossible in this case thanks to a bad law.

  • >>Maarouf was not speeding, on his phone, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol<<

    What the hell was he doing then?

    • Erik Petersen

      Its not out of the question he was hired on for some reason despite low competency in general, like say Mohamed Noor at MPD.

      • Rob

        That must be it. (eye roll)

        • Erik Petersen

          so that didnt happen? its not what it is?

          • I’ve been closing comments a lot lately because of the racism. I have no intention of giving it a microphone. Sorry. This is racism. Go over to the Pioneer Press . This isn’t welcome here. And now I’m closing the comments.

      • Some serious coded innuendo there. We’re not stupid here. We know what you’re saying.