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Railroad Tragedy Made Worse by Defendant Misconduct

10/22/2009
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This case is a tragedy about (4) young lives extinguished long before they should have been. This is also a story about a corporation that lost, destroyed and fabricated evidence in an effort to avoid liability for the death of these four young people.

BNSF Railroad’s story: the four youths tried to drive around the gate to beat the train.

ABC News reports that the Judge, Ellen Maas, felt it happened a little differently, but that the railroad engaged in improper conduct including:

The misconduct included the loss, destruction and fabrication of electronic and physical records, the failure for BNSF to follow its own policies for accident investigation and coordination with law enforcement, interference with the plaintiff’s access to witnesses and the accident site, according to Maas, who also said that BNSF employees provided misleading facts in depositions, sworn affidavits and trial testimony.

The jury returned a $24 million verdict; representing $6 million for each of the deceased.

The reporting of this case sounds more like 20th century defendant conduct, than 21st century. By now one would think that corporate America realizes that destruction of evidence simply does not go over well with judges. Judge Maas said:

“There is no getting around the fact that four young adults were killed in an accident  involving a BNSF locomotive at a railroad crossing,” Maas ruled. “BNSF should have taken reasonable steps to preserve evidence related to the Ferry Street crossing. Many of these lost, misplaced, destroyed and selectively preserved items of evidence were critical to this case.”

“The breadth of BNSF’s misconduct is staggering, beginning within minutes of the accident, up to and through the trial,” ruled Maas

This story has too many similarities to The Angel Palank Story in which a jury awarded $56 million for the death of a husband and father.

Although ultimately reversed for other reasons, defendant’s should take stock of cases such as Coleman vs. Morgan Stanley and the sanctions exacted upon the defendant for similar misconduct in the discovery process.

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