Burlington Northern Santa Fe officials engaged in “egregious” misconduct as they tried to cover up the railroad’s role in a fatal car-train accident that killed four people at a train crossing near Anoka, Minn., a Washington County judge has ruled.
Judge Ellen Maas on Oct. 15 awarded $4 million to the families of the dead after finding that railroad officials fabricated evidence, interfered with the families’ investigation of the accident and tried to cover up the truth.
The award is on top of another $21.6 million award from an Anoka County jury, which placed 90 percent of the blame for a crossing arm that was not working properly.
“When encountering conduct as egregious as that of BNSF, this court … has a duty to impose sanctions of a sufficient severity in order to deter future misconduct of the same caliber,” Maas wrote in her ruling.
In a statement, BNSF spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg said the court exceeded its authority with an award of punitive damages of that size. She said the company would look to appellate courts “to correct the trial court’s errors.”
In the Sept. 26, 2003, accident, a westbound freight train traveling at 59 miles per hour collided with a car driven by Brian Frazier as it crossed the tracks around 10 p.m. Burlington Northern said the driver ignored a warning signal and tried to beat the crossing gate, but a jury concluded the gate was not working properly.
Maas found the railroad “knowingly advanced lies, misleading facts and/or misrepresentations” in order to conceal the truth. The railroad, she wrote, “has attempted to explain away each instance of misconduct as either an innocent mistake or a mere coincidence.”
Legal experts contacted by the Star Tribune were stunned by the company’s conduct.
“This is a very unusual allegation,” said Steven Duke, a professor at Yale University Law School. He said corporate defendants rarely lose documents or tamper with evidence, because they know there’s a high likelihood of being caught.
In interviews with the paper, Minnesota court officials said they could not recall another major Minnesota case that involved allegations of such pervasive misconduct.
Maas said the company’s conduct placed the families at a disadvantage, forcing them to hire expensive experts to cut through a “fog” created by the railroad’s abuses. She said the company’s misconduct delayed legal proceedings for at least a year, and $3 million of the $4 million was awarded for the families’ time. The other $1 million was for legal expenses.
Among the railroad’s transgressions were losing or destroying a computer disk that recorded the train’s speed and other factors on the night of the collision; failure to disclose its awareness of previous signal problems at the crossing; and destruction of records relating to work done at the crossing.
Family members said they couldn’t believe the railroad’s tactics.
“We lost the worst thing possible – we lost our kid,” said Mike Frazier of Ham Lake, father of Brian Frazier, who died in the crash. “Did they really have to go to these extremes?”
Information from: Star Tribune, www.startribune.com
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