No new trial for BNSF in 2003 fatal train collision case

There will be no new trial in the case involving Burlington-Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF) and the families of four young people killed in a collision with a freight train in Anoka in 2003.

Mourners left tributes to the four young people killed when Brian Frazier’s Chevy Cavalier collided with a BNSF freight train in September of 2003 at Anoka’s Ferry Street intersection. File photo

Mourners left tributes to the four young people killed when Brian Frazier’s Chevy Cavalier collided with a BNSF freight train in September of 2003 at Anoka’s Ferry Street intersection. File photo

The Minnesota Supreme Court Wednesday morning overturned the September 2010 Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling ordering a retrial of the case based on BNSF’s claim that the jury had been given the wrong standards against which to hold the railroad liable during the 2008 trial.

In a decision written by Justice Alan C. Page, the state’s highest court ruled that BNSF is not entitled to a new trial because of any error in jury instructions, which the court did not feel affected the fairness or integrity of the judicial proceedings.

The Minnesota Supreme Court also upheld Anoka County District Court Judge Ellen Maas’ decision to deny a retrial on grounds of newly discovered evidence, improperly submitted evidence or instructions given to the jury.

Back in 2008, a jury trial in Anoka County District Court found BNSF 90 percent liable in the accident that killed Bridgette M. Shannon, 17, of Ramsey; Corey E. Chase, 20, of Coon Rapids; Brian L. Frazier, 20, of Newport; and Harry J. Rhoades Jr., 19, of Blaine, when their car was struck by a train at the Ferry Street crossing in Anoka.

The eight-person jury returned a verdict that included an award totaling $24 million – $6 million for each of the crash victims’ families.

That decision was appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals by the railroad, which claimed the jury had been given the wrong standards against which to hold BNSF responsible.

In November 2010, after the court of appeals had ordered a new trial, the Supreme Court agreed to review the case after the families of the four crash victims petitioned for a review of the appeals court decision.

In October 2009, Maas had ruled that the railroad was guilty of misconduct in the 2008 jury trial. At the time, she said the breadth of misconduct by BNSF was staggering beginning within minutes of the accident.

BNSF has maintained it was not at fault in the 2003 accident, claiming the driver of the car swerved around the safety guards at the railroad intersection at the time of the crash.

The families of the four young people killed in the crash have maintained the crossing gates and warning devices were not functioning properly at the Ferry Street intersection at the time of the collision.

The only eyewitness to the crash was the train’s conductor, who testified he saw the Cavalier swerve around the crossing arms to beat the train.

Back in 2008 a lawyer for the victims’ families argued that was impossible, based on the position of the car and its location in the southbound lane.

The trial focused on electronic data, and the lawyers for the victims’ families maintained the railroad did not follow its own rules when collecting evidence for the trial.

In her 2009 ruling Maas said, “Many of these lost, misplaced, destroyed and selectively preserved items of evidence were critical to this case.”

Mandy Moran Froemming is at editor.anokaunion@ecm-inc.com

  • Resident

    I am glad to see BNSF finally get their comeuppance.

    • Lars Anders

      “comeuppance”?
      BNSF is made of of people. The people of BNSF will “effectively” pay for this judgement. If you review the driving record of the driver, you would likely gain a better understanding of his disregard for the driving laws – it’s a shame he had to take the innocent victims with him as he drove carelessly that night – he obviously did not “look or listen” for a train as it approached the crossing. Yes the recorder data was fumbled by BNSF – but the actual data recorded shows the system worked properly that night, and that that exact same system worked properly for the hundreds of trains previous and the hundreds of trains after the accident. The defendant’s attorneys did a fine job of creating false doubts for the jury – that is their job.

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