Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is appealing a jury's decision that found the railroad mostly responsible in a car-train crash that killed four young people in Anoka in 2003.
Last year, the jury ordered Burlington Northern to pay the families $21.6 million. In October, a Washington County judge said the railway should pay the families an additional $4.2 million for misconduct in the case.
Brian Frazier, 20, of Newport, was driving the car that was hit by a Burlington Northern train the night of Sept. 26, 2003, at the Ferry St. crossing in Anoka. Frazier, Bridgette Shannon, 17, of Ramsey, Corey Chase, 20, of Coon Rapids and Harry Rhoades, 20, of Blaine were all killed.
The railroad has contended the car drove around the gates to cross the tracks. Attorneys for the victims' families have said railroad officials' mishandling of the evidence makes it impossible to prove that the crossing signals were working properly at the time of the crash.
The railway disputes both the jury award and the Washington County judge's sanctions. It argues the jury's decision was wrong because it received improper instructions that led it to believe it should take state laws into account, rather than holding the railroad to requirements under the Federal Railroad Safety Act, which is the standard in such cases, said Tim Thornton, the Minneapolis attorney handling the railroad's appeal.
Experts agree that the amount of the jury's award was unprecedented for a railroad accident case.
"The jury should have been instructed that if the railroad complied with federal law, then the railroad was not negligent," Thornton said.
Allan Shapiro, the attorney representing the parents of Bridgette Shannon, said he and the other attorneys who represented the plaintiffs believe the judge gave the jury correct instructions.
Burlington Northern also continues to point to statements made by a witness after the trial that the railroad crossing signals were working just before the accident happened. The railway and its attorneys have said the new evidence should lead to a new trial.
"New witnesses came forward with statements that corroborated with what the crew testified to," Thornton said.
Shapiro noted that the trial court judge had already ruled the new evidence didn't warrant a new trial and that the railroad will have to show otherwise.
"They have to convince the appeals court that she abused her discretion," he said.
Shapiro also noted that the families still haven't received any money from the railroad, and that they will likely have to wait many more months before the case is resolved.
"It's been a long road for them," he said.