FORT WORTH — BNSF Railway Co. has asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to overturn pecuniary loss damages of $24 million and sanctions of more than $4 million awarded against the railroad in a case involving four fatalities in a 2003 car and train collision in Anoka, Minnesota.
Finding that BNSF was deprived of a fair trial, an Appeals Court recently ordered the case to be retried. BNSF has asked the Supreme Court to also address the extreme damages and sanctions, which were influenced by the improper jury instructions in the original trial.
“We are sympathetic to the families’ loss and respect their rights to avail themselves of the judicial process, but BNSF believes there are serious legal issues regarding the damages awarded by the improperly instructed jury and the sanctions that were awarded by the trial court,” said John Ambler, BNSF vice president for corporate relations. “These serious legal issues require the guidance and review of the Minnesota Supreme Court. Because the plaintiffs have already stated that they intended to seek Supreme Court review, we do not believe that BNSF’s petition should result in any additional delay to the scheduling of a fair trial based on all of the facts, including all of the relevant eyewitnesses.”
In 2008, an improperly instructed jury found the Anoka accident to be 90 percent BNSF’s fault even though State Patrol investigative reports, grade crossing data and eyewitness testimony all showed that the car drove around working crossing gates and warning devices and onto the track. The jury assessed identical $6 million in non-economic damages for the families of each of the individuals who died in the crash.
The damages are the largest ever awarded in this type of case in Minnesota history. BNSF’s petition urges the Supreme Court to provide needed guidance on how to correctly assess damages in these difficult and tragic cases.
“The 2008 jury awarded identical $6 million damages for each of these different people without considering their individual circumstances,” Ambler said. “We are asking the court to help juries and courts dealing with these difficult decisions to properly take into account the loss that is unique to each person.”
The petition also asks the Supreme Court to review the trial court’s assertion that it had “inherent authority” to assess more than $4 million against BNSF for attorneys’ fees and agreed-to trial delays because some evidence was not retained by the railroad.
“The crucial data – the original crossing signal event recorder printouts – were retained and these showed the crossing gates were working,” Ambler said. “There is no statute, rule or precedent for these excessive sanctions, and we are asking the Supreme Court to clarify when and how sanctions may be properly imposed.”