A Hennepin County jury unanimously awarded a former Burlington Northern Santa Fe conductor more than $2.6 million for emotional damage suffered in the wake of a Fridley derailment two years ago.
The jury’s verdict, which arrived after a two-week trial and four hours of deliberation earlier this month, not only is a major verdict for conductor Sean M. Nelson, but is considered a comparatively large award for similar cases of its kind, Nelson’s attorneys said Tuesday.
Nelson was a conductor on the 17-car train that was hauling corn and diesel fuel on the morning of July 16, 2011, when it pulled out of the Northtown BNSF railway yards in Columbia Heights after a night of torrential rains had washed out the track’s foundation near the Rice Creek bridge in Fridley. The train derailed, causing the locomotive to tip over. Nelson suffered mild traumatic brain injury as well as post-traumatic stress disorder. The train’s engineer also suffered PTSD.
Nelson’s attorneys, Cortney LeNeave and Richard Hunegs, said Tuesday that the derailment could have been prevented if BNSF inspectors had checked out the area and deemed it unsafe for rail travel.
“We hope a verdict like this has an effect toward making them more safety conscious,” Hunegs said. “We feel it’s an important aim in trying these cases; it’s certainly to protect our clients and to make sure they’re safe, but at the same time we’re hoping the railroad and officials will take notice.”
BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said in a statement that the company dispatched inspectors to examine the tracks, “focusing first on areas known to have historical issues during heavy rains. The Rice Creek bridge did not have a history of significant problems and the washout which occurred had not been experienced at this location of the 100 year history of these tracks.”
McBeth would not say whether BNSF would appeal, only that “while we disagree with the jury verdict, we respect the court process.”
ABBY SIMONS AND PAUL WALSH
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