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The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. is not entitled to a new trial in a case that awarded $21.6 million to the families of four young people killed in a 2003 train-car collision in Anoka.
In a 25-page ruling, the court reversed a 2010 Minnesota Court of Appeals decision that said the case should be retried because jurors were instructed to use the wrong legal standard before they found the railroad 90 percent responsible for the crash.
"We conclude that any error in the instructions and verdict form did not affect the fairness and integrity of the proceedings," the Supreme Court said.
In an e-mailed response to the ruling, John Ambler, BNSF vice president for corporate relations, said: "We have deep sympathy for the families of the individuals involved in this tragic event and are sad for their loss. While we are disappointed with the Supreme Court's decision, we respect the judicial process and the finality of the decision."
It is not known whether the railroad will appeal the decision.
If it doesn't, Wednesday's ruling presumably would end the 8 1/2-year legal battle that gained national attention after Judge Ellen Maas awarded $4.2 million in sanctions to the victims' families and their lawyers, saying that the railroad had engaged in a "staggering" pattern of misconduct in the case. Among other things, Maas said the railroad lost or fabricated evidence, interfered with the families' investigation of the accident and "knowingly advanced lies, misleading facts and/or misrepresentations" in order to conceal the truth.
Burlington Northern has consistently disputed and challenged those claims.
Several relatives of the victims greeted the court's decision Wednesday with relief and hope that the ordeal is over.
"This has been such a long, hard fight," said Denise Shannon, whose daughter, Bridgette, 17, was one of the victims.
"We're kind of numb," added Dave Shannon, Bridgette's father. "Time to realize this is the end."
Crossing Ferry Street
The case dates to Sept. 26, 2003, when a westbound freight train, traveling about 60 miles per hour, collided with Brian Frazier's Chevrolet Cavalier as it crossed the tracks slightly after 10 p.m. on Ferry Street, just north of Hwy. 10 in Anoka.
Burlington Northern said the driver ignored a warning signal and tried to beat the crossing gate. Attorneys for the families said the crossing gate wasn't working properly.
Killed in the crash were Frazier, 20, of Newport; Shannon, 17, of Ramsey; Corey Chase, 20, of Coon Rapids, and Harry Rhoades Jr. 19, of Blaine.
At the conclusion of a six-week trial in 2008, an Anoka County District Court jury awarded the families $21.6 million, which with interest could now be worth more than $30 million, said Allan Shapiro, one of the families' attorneys.
On top of the jury verdict that placed 90 percent of the blame for the accident on the railroad, Maas later awarded the $4.2 million in sanctions. In her ruling, Maas found, among other things, that the railroad destroyed a computer disk that recorded the train's speed and failed to disclose its awareness of previous problems at the intersection.
Burlington Northern later appealed the jury verdict and judge's sanctions. In a 2-1 decision, a Minnesota Court of Appeals panel upheld Maas' findings of misconduct but ruled that the case must be retried because of instructions from the judge that allowed jurors to use the wrong standard in holding the railroad liable. The Appeals Court majority said jurors should have been told to use federal law to determine negligence.
The families appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court. They argued that the Appeals Court decision should be overturned because BNSF neglected to ask Maas to use the appropriate legal standard when issuing her jury instructions.
BNSF attorneys argued that the jury instructions were proposed by the families' attorneys and that the railroad consistently requested that Maas abide by federal law.
Writing on behalf of the Supreme Court, Justice Alan Page noted in Wednesday's ruling that "BNSF did not object to the jury instructions as read."
The court concluded that a new trial was not warranted because the instructions "did not affect the fairness or the integrity of the proceedings."
'Never lost sight'
Maas said Wednesday that she was relieved that it appears she won't have to preside over a new trial.
"Trial judges and lawyers can rest a little easier now, knowing that their agreements and stipulations will ... not be subject to a mulligan if one side is unhappy with the final decision or verdict," she said.
She added that she hoped those involved with the case "can now have some sense of closure and move forward."
Beth Chase, Corey Chase's mother, said she was stunned by Wednesday's ruling but added, "We never lost sight. We're doing this for Corey."