Settlement with victims' families is among the largest wrongful-death settlements ever in Minnesota.

BNSF pays families $29 million to settle 2003 Anoka crash

  • Star Tribune staff writers
  • April 30, 2012 - 9:24 PM

An 8 1/2-year legal battle between the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad and the families of four young people killed in a 2003 car-train crash in Anoka is over.

Relatives of the victims confirmed Monday that they received $29.1 million from the railroad in a settlement in late March, initiated the day after the Minnesota Supreme Court denied the railroad's appeal for a new trial.

The settlement -- $7.5 million more than the sum awarded the families in a jury verdict four years ago -- is among the largest wrongful-death settlements ever in Minnesota, surpassing the $25 million stemming from the plane crash that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone nearly 10 years ago.

"It happened so quickly that I didn't believe it was true," said Dave Shannon, whose daughter Bridgette, 17, of Ramsey, was the youngest of the four victims.

John Ambler, BNSF vice president of corporate relations, confirmed Monday that the "judgment has been satisfied" and that the company has "no plans to appeal."

"We continue to have deep sympathies for the families and are sad for their loss," he said.

Burlington Northern had 30 days after the March 28 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. While it would have been a long shot for the nation's highest court to hear an appeal, filing it could have further delayed the conclusion of the case. The families were pleased to avoid further legal activity, said Bob Pottroff, lead attorney for the families.

Under the settlement, Burlington Northern paid about $50,000 less than the $21.6 million jury verdict plus pro-rated interest, said Sharon Van Dyck, one of the families' attorneys.

Burlington Northern placed the $29.1 million into the families' collective account within 48 hours of striking the settlement, Van Dyck said. The railroad had previously paid the families about $1 million in costs and sanctions, Pottroff said.

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; Corey Chase, 20, of Coon Rapids; Harry Rhoades, Jr., 19, of Blaine, and Shannon, a high-school student.

After a six-week trial in 2008, an Anoka County District Court jury awarded the families $21.6 million, finding the railroad 90 percent responsible for the accident.

In October 2009, Judge Ellen Maas awarded $4.2 million in sanctions against BNSF, on top of the jury verdict, saying the railroad had engaged in a "staggering" pattern of misconduct aimed at covering up its role in the deaths of the four people in the car. In her ruling, Maas found, among other things, that the railroad destroyed a computer disc 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 the judge's sanctions. In a 2-1 decision, a Court of Appeals panel ruled that the case 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 panel upheld Maas' findings of misconduct.

The Supreme Court said the Court of Appeals' call for a retrial should be overruled because BNSF neglected to ask Maas to use the appropriate legal standard while issuing her jury instructions. The court also said it concluded that "any error in the instructions and verdict form did not affect the fairness and integrity of the proceedings."

"The legal side of this is over," Mike Frazier, Brian Frazier's father, said Monday. "It's been a long 8 1/2 years."

"No amount of money can ever replace the kids in our lives," Frazier said. "But we can finally put this chapter behind us and move on." • 612-673-4419 • 612-673-4425

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