A judge has ordered a railroad to pay the families of four people killed in a 2003 car-train collision in Anoka an additional $4.2 million for misconduct in the case.
A jury had already ordered Burlington Northern Santa Fe to pay the families $21.6 million. And in an order issued Thursday, Washington County Judge Ellen Maas said BNSF faces financial sanctions for destroying and mishandling evidence, knowingly advancing lies and misleading facts, and interfering with the families' investigation into the collision.
"The breadth of BNSF's misconduct in this case is staggering; beginning within minutes of the accident, up to and through the trial," Maas wrote in her ruling. "BNSF's misconduct placed Plaintiffs at a tremendous disadvantage, forcing them to expend vast amounts of time and resources in an attempt to adequately prosecute their case."
In a statement released Friday by BNSF officials, the company said the judge's ruling "amounts to an improper award of punitive damages" that it said isn't allowed under Minnesota law.
"BNSF looks to the appellate courts to correct the trial court's errors and allow all the evidence to be heard in a new trial," the statement read.
Brian Frazier, 20, of Newport, was driving the car a BNSF train hit the night of Sept. 26, 2003, at the Ferry Street crossing in Anoka. Killed were Frazier, 17-year-old Bridgette Shannon of Ramsey, 20-year-old Corey Chase of Coon Rapids and 20-year-old Harry Rhoades of Blaine.
The railroad contended that the car drove around the gates to cross the tracks, and BNSF said in its statement that new evidence -- statements made by witnesses after trial -- indicated that the rail crossing signals were working just before the accident. Attorneys for the families have maintained that the crossing arms weren't working.
An event recorder that can monitor the speed of a train, ensure adequate warning time and monitor the crossing gates and lights was present during the crash. But a disk containing downloaded data from the recorder was misplaced or destroyed within a week of the accident. A laptop containing the original download also was destroyed, according to the judge's ruling.
In another example of misconduct, the judge said BNSF failed to give the Minnesota State Patrol evidence it requested, including making the locomotive involved in the crash available for inspection.
The judge said BNSF has tried throughout the case to "explain away" the misconduct by arguing that its actions in question were coincidence, honest mistakes or part of legitimate business practices. Maas wrote that she was not persuaded.
In addition to the $4.2 million in sanctions, BNSF will have to pay about $400,000 for some of the families' expenses, including having to bring in expert witnesses to counter the company's claims.
Allan Shapiro, the attorney representing the parents of Bridgette Shannon, said all the parents in the case had to deal with the loss of their children while mounting a fight against a powerful company.
"The thought that this railroad could do this to these families, to fight so dirty" made the case difficult, Shapiro said. "You have difficulty accepting that these types of things happen and that they can happen in this country and in Minnesota."
While the families had asked the judge to make BNSF pay even more, Shapiro said they were pleased that Maas came down so hard on the railroad.
"There is justice, and truth has value," he said.
BNSF still has an opportunity to appeal the judge's decision.
Bob Pottroff, a Kansas-based attorney who helped with the Anoka case and has worked on many cases against railroads, said it's not the first time a railroad has mishandled evidence and engaged in other forms of misconduct.
"It happens way more often than it should," Pottroff said.
Pottroff said the amount of money for the sanctions in the Anoka case is unprecedented, and he said he hopes it sends a message to the railroads.
"This will probably be the one that's talked about for a long time," he said. "I hope this is an eye opener to people who don't understand what's going on out there."