Despite a jury's verdict and judge's sanction in four deaths, families await resolution of their case against Burlington Northern.
They were four young people "at an age of transition," trying to find their way. But 6 1/2 years after they were killed in a horrific train-car accident in Anoka, and two years after a historic $21.6 million jury verdict, their court case has turned one more page, with no immediate end in sight.
Barring a settlement, it could be two years or more before this case is finished, Sharon Van Dyck, an attorney representing one victim's family, predicted Thursday, days after filing a response to Burlington Northern Santa Fe's appeal.
The BNSF appeal, filed in January, came three months after the case generated national attention when a Washington County judge declared that the railroad had engaged in a "staggering" pattern of misconduct aimed at covering up its role in the accident. To punish the railroad, which allegedly began destroying evidence within minutes of the accident, Judge Ellen Maas awarded $4 million to the victims' families and their attorneys in October. That award was on top of the $21.6 million from a jury that, in 2008, placed 90 percent of the blame for the accident on Burlington Northern.
"They did not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence that supported the jury's verdict," Van Dyck said of the BNSF appeal. "They just concede it."
But in appealing the $4 million in sanctions, the "identical $6 million awards to compensate for the death of very different youngsters," and the denial of a new trial, Burlington Northern could ultimately send the case beyond the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which likely will not issue a ruling until December.
If the Court of Appeals affirms the previous rulings, BNSF could then take its case to the state Supreme Court, which accepts only 5 percent of civil requests, and/or to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"With no settlement, the earliest I see us being done is 2012," Van Dyck said.
No payments to families
Meanwhile, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, a company that financial experts say grossed $26 billion last year, has yet to pay the judgment. The families have not received a penny.
Tim Thornton, the Minneapolis attorney who is handling the BNSF appeal, said of the court case: "I have no idea how long it's going to last or whether or not the case will settle."
The accident occurred on the night of Sept. 26, 2003. A westbound freight train, traveling 59 miles per hour, collided with Brian Frazier's Chevrolet Cavalier as it crossed the tracks just after 10 p.m. at 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, but a jury concluded the crossing gate wasn't working properly.
Killed in the crash were Frazier, 19, of Ham Lake; Bridgette Shannon, 17, of Ramsey; Corey Chase, 20, of Coon Rapids, and Harry Rhoades Jr., 20, of Blaine. Shannon was a high school student. The others, Van Dyck wrote in the response to the appeal, were "still figuring out what they wanted to do with their adult lives and not quite sure how to get there. Each of the four was young, vibrant, and full of the future."
In December 2008 -- six months after the jury verdict -- a $16 million settlement between the families and the railroad seemed almost a done deal. Then, according to members of two of the families, BNSF abandoned settlement plans hours before a scheduled hearing.
In October, Maas found that 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.
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419