On March 28, 2012, the Minnesota Supreme Court in Frazier v. BNSF Railway Co., A09-2212, issued a ruling overturning the Minnesota Court of Appeals order for a new trial and in so doing reinstated a $24 million dollar wrongful death verdict against the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.
The case arose from the tragic September 26, 2003 crash between a BNSF freight train and a car containing four young adults: Brian Frazier, Bridgette Shannon, Corey Chase, and Harry Rhoades. Burlington Northern blamed the victims for the accident, alleging that they had driven around warning gates and tried to beat the train. Attorneys for the estates of those killed brought forward evidence that BNSF had failed to maintain the crossing signal gates and lights and that three prior accidents had occurred at the same crossing due to defective gates and lights.
Anoka County District Court Judge Ellen Maas found that the railroad had destroyed and fabricated evidence showing the train’s speed at the crossing, refused to produce relevant evidence, knowingly advanced lies and misrepresentations by railroad employees, and failed to reveal their knowledge of prior problems with the crossing. Judge Maas added 4.6 million dollars in sanctions to the $24,000,000.00 jury verdict against BNSF to punish them for their “staggering misconduct” in concealing evidence.
The railroad appealed the Anoka District Court ruling to the Minnesota Court of Appeals which granted BNSF’s request for a new trial. Plaintiffs appealed this decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court which in this decision overturned the decision of the Court of Appeals.
Judge Maas in an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune expressed her happiness with the Supreme Court’s ruling, stating: “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.”
The Railroad has indicated it will respect the verdict, thus bringing to a close the 8 year old case.