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Jury finds BNSF guilty of reckless disregard for safety, awards $9 million for wrongful death in 2013 grade crossing fatality

(Source: Davis, Bethune & Jones LLC press release, May 15, 2019)

PAWNEE COUNTY, Okla. — On May 9, 2019, a Pawnee County trial concluded in which the jury awarded $9,000,000 (net verdict of $6.3 million) in compensatory damages and found BNSF guilty of reckless disregard of safety in a case involving a dangerous railroad crossing where Richard Knight was killed when his vehicle was struck by a BNSF train on May 8, 2013.

A Pawnee County jury awarded a net verdict of $6.3 million for the wrongful death of Richard Knight. A BNSF train struck Mr. Knight's vehicle May 8, 2013 causing an explosion and fire. BNSF Railway Company had been warned repeatedly about the limited sight distances at this crossing. The obstruction to view was old BNSF buildings on BNSF property very close to the tracks. There had been at least eight prior train wrecks at this crossing before the May 8, 2013 train wreck that killed Mr. Knight. Mr. Knight was from Edmond, Oklahoma.

On April 29, 2019 the jury determined that Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company was negligent in the wrongful death of Mr. Knight and the jury also found that BNSF's misconduct amounted to reckless disregard for the safety of others. On May 9, 2019, the same jury once again faulted BNSF for their reckless conduct but declined to award additional money for punitive damages.

Grant L. Davis, attorney for the family stated, “The Knight family is very thankful for the service of the jury and the judge. This case was always about making the community safer. BNSF Railway Company chose profits over safety and allowed a dangerous condition to exist for years which caused numerous train wrecks.”

In Lela, Oklahoma, BNSF owned a building on its "right of way" very close to its tracks that it leased to Morrison Grain, a small family owned grain company. In 2011, BNSF finally decided to have the buildings demolished because the building dangerously restricted the visibility at the crossing. But, instead of tearing down the buildings itself, BNSF ordered Morrison Grain to demolish the buildings at Morrison Grain's expense. BNSF had leased the buildings to Morrison Grain and BNSF invoked a provision in the lease to force Morrison Grain to pay for BNSF's buildings to be demolished. The cost was $50,000.00. BNSF had the ability and equipment available to tear down the BNSF buildings itself. Instead, by forcing Morrison Grain to demolish the buildings, the dangerous condition lasted a couple more years causing two additional train wrecks. In addition, by forcing Morrison Grain to demolish the buildings BNSF circumvented all its own safety rules. BNSF had safety rules that required trains to stop or slow while proceeding through construction zones. Under BNSF rules its train crews should have had direct communications with a BNSF employee in charge at the construction site. None of these rules were followed by BNSF and a BNSF train ran at maximum train speed through the construction zone striking Mr. Knights vehicle. Mr. Knight was in the process of transporting a heavy piece of equipment being used for the demolition process.

The jury found BNSF liable for negligence and also reckless indifference to the safety of others. The jury found that BNSF was 70% at fault and Mr. Knight 30% at fault. The award of damages was $9 million, which after reduction of Mr. Knight's 30% fault amounted to a net verdict of $6.3 million. There was a second phase of trial for punitive damages in which the jury reaffirmed BNSF's reckless disregard for the safety of others. After determining that BNSF was liable for punitive conduct the jury decided not to add any addition money damages to the verdict. BNSF's attorney argued in the punitive damages phase that BNSF had in fact broke its own rules causing Mr. Knight's death but also that BNSF had learned its lesson and would change protocol.

Grant L. Davis, attorney for the Knight family, stated, "BNSF ignored all of its own safety rules just to save $50,000 and the result was Mr. Knight was killed."

The Lela, Oklahoma crossing is about seven miles west of the City of Pawnee. A lease provision invoked by BNSF allowed BNSF to order Morrison Grain to tear down BNSF's buildings at Morrison Grain's expense. By doing this BNSF saved $50,000 in demolition cost, but caused a dangerous condition to exist for a longer period of time. Choosing this course also ignored all of BNSF's safety rules. In addition, it extended the timing of the demolition by for two years, during which another separate train wreck occurred.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

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