State High Court: BNSF Not Entitled to New Trial in Fatal 2003 Collision

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State High Court: BNSF Not Entitled to New Trial in Fatal 2003 Collision

By Beattie Law Firm of Beattie Law Firm, P.C. posted in Current Events on Wednesday, March 28, 2012.

The opinion reversed an appellate ruling that said a new trial was warranted because of faulty instructions to the jury from the trial judge.

The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled that Burlington Northern Sante Fe Corp. is not entitled to a new trial in a 2008 district court case involving the families of four people killed when their car collided with a train in Anoka in September 2003.

In a 25-page ruling filed Wednesday, the court reversed a 2010 Minnesota Court of Appeals decision that said the case should be retried because jurors were instructed to use the wrong legal standard in holding the railroad 90 percent responsible for the crash. The jury awarded the victims’ families $21.6 million after a six-week trial.

In its ruling Wednesday, the Supreme Court said, “we conclude that any error in the instructions and verdict form did not affect the fairness and integrity of the proceedings.”

John Ambler, BNSF vice president for corporate relations, said in an e-mail Wednesday that “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.”

The Appeals Court ruled in 2010 that Anoka County District Judge Ellen Maas committed reversible error at the jury trial by not telling jurors to use federal law to determine negligence.

In their petition to the Minnesota Supreme Court, the families of the victims argued that the Appeals Court decision should be overturned because BNSF neglected to ask Maas to use the appropriate legal standard when issuing her jury instructions.

BNSF attorneys argued that the jury instructions were proposed by the families’ attorneys and that the railroad consistently requested that Maas abide by federal law.

Bob Pottroff, the lead attorney for the families, said Wednesday: “We have four families who hope for closure to a horrible tragedy in their lives. As soon as this legal proceeding is over, it’s only the beginning of the closure process for these families.”

It was not known whether BNSF will appeal Wednesday’s decision.

The case dates to September 2003, when a westbound freight train, traveling 59 miles per hour, collided with Brian Frazier’s Chevrolet Cavalier as it crossed the tracks just after 10 p.m. on Ferry Street, just north of Hwy. 10 in Anoka.

Burlington Northern said the driver ignored a warning signal and tried to beat the crossing gate. Attorneys for the families said the crossing gate wasn’t working properly.

Killed in the crash were Frazier, 20, of Newport; Bridgette Shannon, 17, of Ramsey; Corey Chase, 20, of Coon Rapids, and Harry Rhoades Jr. 19, of Blaine.