Last Wednesday, a Minnesota (MN) Washington County Court judge affirmed a $21.6 million jury verdict against rail operator Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. for failing to maintain a safe railroad crossing. The judge also assessed $4 million in penalties against BNSF for destroying evidence in the case and for paying unqualified individuals for supposedly expert testimony.
BNSF had been defending itself against civil charges that its neglect of crossing safety led to the deaths of 17-year-old Bridgette M. Shannon and of Brian L. Frazier, Harry J. Rhoades Jr. and Corey E. Chase in Anoka, Minnesota on the night of Sept. 26, 2003. Each of the young men were 20 years old when the car they and Shannon were in was struck by a freight train traveling through a crossing where gates to block cars and trucks was not working.
Citing court documents, a Star Tribune article listed the following actions as BSNF’s “biggest blunders” in presenting it unsupportable defense:
- Destroying a laptop that contained data about the train’s speed and the crossing signal procedures.
- Losing or destroying a computer disk containing train and signal performance information.
- Failing to inform inspectors and plaintiffs that it knew of signal problems.
- Destroying records of track work at the crossing.
Railroad crossings should to be clearly marked, and train operators must ensure that any installed crossing gates and warning bells and lights are maintained in proper working order. Also, while not required, it is advisable that active tracks have gates at crossings and that crossings be cleared of anything that can obstruct a driver’s, pedestrian’s or train engineer’s vision. Failure to meet to follow safeguards caused a collision between a freight train and a car as recently as this weekend.
The Toledo Blade reported Sunday morning that Chris Butler and his son his, Craig Chadwick, died when their car struck a Norfolk Southern freight train as it crossed a long, private gravel driveway in the town of Delta, Ohio. Neither Ohio nor federal laws requires trains to blow their whistles when they cross private roads or paths, and the crossing where Butler and Chadwick were killed is marked only with stop signs and “Private Railroad Crossing” signs. A large shrub blocks the view down the tracks in one direction.
Having represented victims of railroad accidents since the 1980s, I know too well how important clearly marking and safely maintaining railroad crossings are. Judgments such as those in the BNSF case go some way toward ensuring railroads keep crossings safe, but the tragic accident in Ohio should remind everyone that much progress remains to be made.
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