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Minn. Supreme Court: BNSF not entitled to retrial

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- The BNSF Railway Co. is not entitled to a new trial in a lawsuit it lost over a 2003 car-train crash in Anoka that killed four young people, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

BNSF was ordered to pay $21.6 million in damages and $4 million in sanctions for misconduct after the 2008 trial. The Minnesota Court of Appeals ordered a retrial because of faulty jury instructions about determining the railroad's negligence. But the Supreme Court said that any error did not affect the fairness or integrity of the proceedings.

In the accident, a freight train traveling at 59 mph collided with a car as it crossed the tracks. The victims' families contended the crossing gates and warning signals malfunctioned and that the railroad failed to properly maintain them. But Fort Worth, Texas-based BNSF said the gates and signals were working that night, and that the driver deliberately drove around them. The jury found BNSF 90 percent at fault and the driver 10 percent at fault.

The jury was instructed to judge BNSF on whether it used the care a reasonable person would use in similar circumstances. BNSF argued on appeal that the standard should have been whether it complied with applicable federal regulations.

In an opinion written by Justice Alan Page, the Supreme Court said the record showed that BNSF argued its case under the reasonable person standard and failed to object to the jury instructions, then raised a new legal theory when it demanded a new trial under the regulatory compliance standard. He said the railroad can't have it both ways. He wrote that granting a retrial would "not accord with notions of fairness or ensure integrity in judicial proceedings."