The families of four young people killed in a horrific train-car accident nearly five years ago have been awarded $24 million by a jury in Anoka County, Minnesota. The jurors who heard the case rejected earlier statements by the railroad that the victims had tried to beat a train to the crossing. Each of the four families was awarded $6 million in damages. The railroad officials contended the victims’ car drove around the crossing gates. During the trial, the families proved that the gates were not working properly when a westbound train traveling at 60 miles per hour hit the car at night back in 2003. The jury determined Burlington Northern Santa Fe was 90% responsible for the crash and the driver of the car was 10% responsible.
Although the railroad submitted evidence it contended showed the crossing gate was working at the time of the collision, the families responded by saying that the data provided by the railroad “wasn’t authentic.” The Plaintiffs presented evidence that questioned whether the information downloaded from the railroad’s data recorders was actually from the crossing where the accident occurred. It was also questioned whether the data was from the same time as the accident. The jury obviously didn’t believe the railroad’s downloads because, if they had been accurate, the gates would have been down at the time of the incident.
The trial lasted six weeks and more than 300 exhibits were introduced in evidence. The freight train split the car in two in the collision. The only eyewitness was the train’s engineer, who testified that he saw the car go around the lowered signal arm. The Plaintiffs said there was an intermittent malfunction and that the gates weren’t functioning properly. The crossing was equipped with lights, arms and sound. A woman who had gone through the same crossing in the weeks before the crash testified that she was almost hit by a train when the lights didn’t work and that she had notified the railroad. Plaintiffs offered evidence that nothing was done by the railroad to repair the crossing signal after the notification of a problem.
Interestingly, Burlington Northern did not immediately provide information to investigators from the electronic event recorder kept in the crossing signal. As you may know, this is akin to a black box on an airplane. The recorder at the crossing contained data about the signal, but it was not encrypted. The railroad later said the laptop on which the data was stored had been “recycled.” Now that the trial is over, the families plan to seek federal legislation changing how signal boxes record data. The data should be encrypted so that it can’t be altered. The damages awarded by the jury were compensatory, based on the loss of comfort and companionship the young adults would have provided. The jury was not asked to award punitive damages. The plaintiffs were represented by ¬Bob Potroff, a lawyer from Manhattan, Kansas, who did an outstanding job for the victims’ families.
Source: Star Tribune
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