A light-rail operator ran a stop signal and killed the driver of a passing car in St. Paul last July, Metro Transit said, but prosecutors say a “hole” in state law prevents them from filing charges.
Documents released by Metro Transit on Friday show the agency found Abdellatif El Maarouf at fault for the fatal crash on University Avenue at Eustis Street, which killed 29-year-old Nicholas Westlake in his car. An investigation found El Maarouf had disregarded a rail stop signal at the intersection. He’s still employed by Metro Transit, but he no longer operates buses or trains.
The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office declined in February to pursue a charge of criminal vehicular operation because they could not prove El Maarouf’s conduct met the standard of gross negligence. In a letter to Metro Transit, prosecutors said El Maarouf sounded his horn and was not speeding, drunk or on a cellphone.
“El Maarouf’s driving conduct is that of anyone who misses a red light and mistakenly enters an intersection against the light,” the prosecutors’ letter said.
According to the letter, El Maarouf told officers at the scene he had the right of way, but this was contradicted by video.
But prosecutors in St. Paul said they could not charge El Maarouf with a lesser violation, such as careless driving, because trains are not considered “vehicles” under the traffic code. St. Paul City Attorney Lyndsey Olson said the incident revealed “a hole” in state law.
“The result in this situation despite a fatality, is that because gross negligence was not present, there simply were not other options for charging accidental, negligent, or careless conduct of a light rail train,” Olson said in an e-mail.
The exemption for trains dates back to the origins of the state’s traffic laws in the 1920s. Olson said there is a separate law governing rail safety, but it did not apply in this circumstance because it applies to “intentional violations of duty.”
El Maarouf, who joined Metro Transit in 2004, was fired in August. But the agency later allowed him to remain employed as a light rail helper with the condition he could not be a bus or train driver.
He had one previous violation on his record, for not following proper procedures after a Twins game, according to the personnel records.
“My deepest sympathies go out to the family and loved ones of the victim,” said Alene Tchourumoff, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Council, the parent agency of Metro Transit, in a statement. “One life lost in our community is too much. We strive to ensure our transit system is reliable and efficient, and most of all, safe. Safe for our drivers, our customers, and all those who share the roadway.”
Metro Transit spokesman Howie Padilla would not release the investigative documents relating to the crash, citing a section of the state’s open records law pertaining to pending litigation.
“While the St. Paul City Attorney’s Office and the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office both chose not to pursue criminal charges in this matter, we also know that does not preclude the filing of civil claims and does not remove any liability that may exist,” Tchourumoff said. “We look forward to taking part in any discussions on how to best protect our roadways and the communities we serve.”
A native of South Dakota, Westlake was remembered for his love of ballroom dancing. He taught at the Dancers Studio in St. Paul and also worked as a software engineer, the Star Tribune reported in 2017.