Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. engaged in a “staggering” pattern of misconduct aimed at covering up its role in the deaths of four young people whose car collided with a train largely because a crossing gate wasn’t working properly.
To punish the railroad, which allegedly began destroying evidence within minutes of the 2003 accident, Judge Maas awarded $4 million to the victims’ families and their attorneys. The award comes on top of $21.6 million from a jury that placed 90 percent of the blame for the accident on Burlington Northern.
“When encountering conduct as egregious as that of BNSF, this court … has a duty to impose sanctions of a sufficient severity in order to deter future misconduct of the same caliber,” Maas ruled.
A westbound freight train, traveling at 59 miles per hour on Sept. 26, 2003, collided with Brian Frazier’s car as it crossed the tracks around 10 p.m. in Anoka, Minn. 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.
Maas found that the railroad company 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.
The railroad, Maas noted, “has attempted to explain away each instance of misconduct as either an innocent mistake or a mere coincidence. … This court is not persuaded.”
Among the railroad company’s biggest blunders:
-Losing or destroying a computer disk that recorded the train’s speed and other factors on the night of the collision. The disk would have revealed whether the victims were given adequate warning time at the crossing. A laptop containing the data was also destroyed.
-The railroad’s failure to disclose its awareness of previous signal problems at the crossing.
-The destruction of records relating to work done on eight feet of track at the crossing.
“It was revealed that a work gang had, in fact, worked on the approach track at the Ferry Street Crossing the day before the accident and that, shortly after the accident, the signal system had been revised,” Maas said in her ruling.
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