Court orders new trial in fatal BNSF Anoka accident

A court ruling could change the amount of money awarded to the families of four young people killed in a 2003 train-car collision in Anoka.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Tuesday ordered a new trial to determine Burlington Northern Santa Fe's liability. Two of the three judges on the panel say an error in jury instructions warrants a new trial.

Plaintiff attorney Sharon Van Dyck said the first jury found the railroad 90 percent at fault for the incident -- and responsible to pay the families $21.6 million of the $24 million award.

Van Dyck said a new jury could decide that the railroad was not as responsible and reduce the amount of money for each family.

"So, whether or not we collect anything will depend on the new trial, unless the Supreme Court takes it and reverses the court of appeal," Van Dyck said.

Van Dyck said the families will likely appeal to the Supreme Court. Railroad spokesman John Ambler said the company appealed the ruling to set the record straight.

"The issue is that we believe that an objective and properly instructed jury would find that the great weight of evidence demonstrates that BNSF acted properly," Ambler said. "And that unfortunately, the car went around the gates and warning devices that were working correctly."

During the trial, BNSF employees at the scene of the crash testified that the crossing lights were flashing and the crossing gate was down when the train passed. But according to the appeals court decision, the families' case relied on "circumstantial evidence" to show that the safety equipment wasn't working properly and wasn't working at the time of the crash.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.