HENNEPIN COUNTY TRIAL COURT JUDGE HANDS DOWN UNWARRANTED SANCTIONS
A recent series of court rulings in a case involving BNSF Railway shows why defendants believe they face an unfair and uphill battle in Twin Cities’ courtrooms.
Judge Amy Dawson of the Hennepin County District Court, the largest trial court in Minnesota and the court for Minneapolis, disregarded the rule of law and failed a basic test of fairness in her handling of this case, which helped solidify the Twin Cities’ position on the Judicial Hellholes list.
In that case, a railroad employee claimed to have sustained permanent injuries as the result of an alleged exposure to “hazardous chemicals” while working next to a specific railcar in BNSF’s yard in January of 2014. BNSF conducted an immediate and thorough investigation with the local fire department, company hazmat responders and two emergency-response contractors, and found no odors, signs of leakage, or abnormalities in the railcar identified by Plaintiff.
It was not until three years later, after litigation had commenced, that the plaintiff for the first time declared that his injuries were the result of exposure to “hydrocarbons” leaking from one of eleven different railcars, not owned or leased by BNSF, located on a different track in the yard. The court ordered BNSF to make those eleven cars available for inspection during the discovery stage of the litigation; however, the railroad was unable to do so because three years had passed and they did not own or lease the cars in question.
Following BNSF’s inability to produce the cars, the plaintiff asked the court to sanction the railroad. The motion of sanctions was not limited to the missing cars but broadly claimed the railroad had discarded evidence and other misconduct, without supporting evidence.
In the sanctions motion, the plaintiff did not show the product transported in the specified cars on the day of his alleged injury was “hydrocarbons,” also known as “natural gas condensate.” He argued, however, that he “unearthed” documentation that BNSF reported to the federal government on six different occasions the unintentional release of “natural gas condensate” around the same time period of his alleged exposure. Plaintiff argued that this proved BNSF had additional documents concerning the exposure that it failed to produce and that the material in the cars must have been “natural gas condensate.”
BNSF repeatedly disputed the accuracy of this information and offered to provide testimony in support of its position, but the court refused to allow in the evidence, and instead, wholly accepted and adopted Plaintiff ‘s claims.
Data in the documents relied on by Plaintiff were later corrected by the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration because a technical glitch in the reporting system inaccurately reported “natural gas condensate” as the technical/trade name for BNSF’s submission of the materials involved in the incidents. Despite this fact, the judge relied on the inaccurate data and denied BNSF’s attempt to introduce refuting evidence.
Plaintiff also claimed that BNSF improperly disregarded relevant evidence by not making the 11 railroad cars available for inspection. BNSF argued that, because they were not aware of the involvement of the specific cars in the accident until nearly three and a half years later and they had no control over their whereabouts, it had acted properly. Judge Dawson, not surprisingly, nevertheless agreed with the plaintiff.
Not only did Judge Dawson impose sanctions, she struck all of BNSF’s liability and causation defenses, allowing the case to proceed to trial solely on the issue of damages, and ordered BNSF to pay the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees and costs. Essentially, BNSF was forced to go to trial with both hands tied behind its back. BNSF was denied the opportunity to present evidence indicating that the plaintiff ‘s condition actually resulted from an underlying pre-existing condition and natural causes, not the alleged exposure to chemicals. The judge unfairly stripped BNSF of its right to have a jury decide the question of liability, and it simply became a question of how much money the plaintiff should be awarded.
In a result that should surprise no one, the jury returned a $15 million verdict. In April 2018, Judge Dawson, again without a hearing or any responses by Plaintiff to BNSF’s post-trial motions, denied BNSF’s post-trial motions and entered final judgment against the company. Three months later, the court fined BNSF an additional $4.6 million, in addition to ordering the railroad to pay $1.1 million of the plaintiff ‘s attorneys’ fees and $89,600 in expenses. The case, Kowalewski v. BNSF Railway Company, is now on appeal.