Last fall, a Minnesota judge fined the country’s second-largest railroad $4.2 million for destroying, misplacing and mishandling evidence in a wrongful death lawsuit over a fatal 2003 collision. The judge wrote that she hoped Burlington Northern Santa Fe would learn its lesson and “cooperate with law enforcement agencies assigned to investigate railroad accidents” in the future.
According to an investigation by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune published this week with some reporting from ProPublica’s Sharona Coutts, the company was involved in similar legal misconduct in at least 20 other cases resulting from railroad accidents or workplace injuries over the past decade.
Judges penalized the company for withholding or destroying evidence in 13 cases, though the financial penalties they imposed were far smaller than the one last fall, the Star-Tribune noted:
While some courts have rebuked the railroad for its legal conduct, they have rarely imposed large financial penalties on BNSF, court records show.
Until Judge Maas assessed $4.2 million in sanctions against the railroad last year, the largest fine imposed on the multibillion-dollar company for breaking the rules of civil procedure was $27,684, BNSF said in a written statement. In one case, the fine was $114.
In four of the cases, judges declared mistrials or ordered new trials. In the eight other cases, the company’s employees and attorneys acknowledged actions that could have been classified as misconduct, but judges either didn’t address the issue or the cases were settled, the Star-Tribune reported.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe issued a response disputing the stories and asserting that the company “is known for operating with honesty and integrity.”
The company has admitted in the past that evidence was bungled in the 2003 railroad collision case, but in its statement, it maintained that the incident “was not BNSF’s fault.” If the case goes to a second trial and a jury sides with the company regarding liability, the $4.2 million fine for misconduct could be reduced to $1.1 million, according to the Star-Tribune.
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