APPELLATE COURT UPHOLDS UNWARRANTED SANCTIONS
Judge Amy Dawson of the Hennepin County District Court, the largest trial court in Minnesota and the court for Minneapolis, imposed sanctions on BNSF Railway in a case lacking basic fairness. The trial judge’s actions helped solidify the Twin Cities designation as a Judicial Hellhole in 2018. Unfortunately, a state appellate court upheld her problematic ruling in April 2019.
The facts are as follows – a railroad employee alleged that exposure to “hazardous chemicals” while working next to a specific railcar in BNSF’s yard in January 2014 led to permanent injuries. BNSF conducted an immediate and thorough investigation with the local fire department, company hazmat responders and two emergency-response contractors. They found no odors, signs of leakage, or abnormalities in the railcar identified by the plaintiff.
It was not until three years later, in the midst of litigation, that the plaintiff for the first time declared his injuries resulted from 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. 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 were “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 consider the evidence, and instead, wholly accepted and adopted the plaintiff’s claims.
Data in the documents relied upon by the plaintiff were later corrected by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 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.
As a sanction, Judge Dawson 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.