You read a lot about the need for ‘tort reform’ to protect big business and big insurance from overly generous, out of control juries and, of course, from those “greedy trial lawyers”. Typically, ‘tort reform’, as it is practiced in most state legislatures, centers on three things: 1. Capping general damages. 2. Limiting punitive damage awards and/or sanctions 3. Reducing or eliminating liability or duties owed in certain situations. One would think that lawsuits are never about punishing safety violations or providing incentive to correct them. Lawsuits are, in the minds of the big business, big insurance publicity campaign, designed to pull the wool over the public’s eyes about ‘greedy plaintiffs’ and ‘greedy trial lawyers’. Well, here is a terrific example of the other side of the story and why ‘tort reform’ should never happen nationally, should never happen in states where it is not currently the law, and should be abolished in those states where it has been passed.
Four young adults were killed in the subject accident and, apparently, a fine attorney named Bob Pottroff, who specializes in train accidents, proffered evidence that the defendant, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, destroyed and withheld evidence that prevented the victims’ families from recovering punitive damages from the jury. The original $21.6 million verdict was one of the largest wrongful death verdicts in Minnesota history, but, not enough, says Pottroff. Armed with evidence of the defendant’s misconduct, he is asking for $45 million more and further, he has asked Washington County Judge Ellen Maas (who presided at the trial) to delay any appeal of the verdict until sanctions are awarded and paid. Attorneys for the railroad argue that the request is unconstitutional because it is, simply, a request for a substitute punitive damages award, which must be awarded by the trier of fact (in this case, the jury). The obvious problem with that request, in my humble opinion, is that it is the defendant’s own misconduct that prevented the jury from getting its chance to rule on the issue.
The judge has 90 days to rule on sanctions. Pottroff accuses Burlington Northern of an “intentional, systematic pattern” of perjury, concealment, misrepresentation, and evidence tampering throughout the trial. This includes, for example, destroying evidence that the 8 foot stretch of track where the accident occurred was replaced the day before the accident. Defense attorneys also tried to blame a “rogue”, “problem” employee-signal technician for the accident. Judge Maas scolded the defense reminding the courtroom that Burlington hired him and that he was no rogue.
Attorneys for the families also contend that evidence tampering prevented them from showing that the crossing gates were not working properly when the accident occurred. The railroad, of course, argued that the car drove around properly functioning gates. All four victims were 20 years of age or under; the driver, Brian Frazier, was 20 years old. The jury found that Burlington Northern was 90 % responsible for the accident and Frazier was 10% responsible. No money has been paid to anyone, six years after the accident. The families are hopeful that the judge’s ruling will send a message to Burlington Northern and any other corporation that might attempt to manipulate the judicial system. “You can’t play with families that way”, said Denise Shannon, whose daughter was killed in the accident.
Yes, you can, Denise; stalling and stonewalling are very effective tools in the defense attorney’s arsenal. These have been the tactics and strategies of defendants for as long as I have been an attorney. Now, I am not suggesting that all defendants go the extent of violating the law or the rules of professional conduct similar to what seems to have happened in this case, but the American Association of Justice’s slogan that big business defendants “Delay, Deny, Confuse, Refuse” is an accurate statement of what plaintiffs with significant damages can expect when they pursue litigation. In my experience, all defendants stretch (“stretch, not “cross”) ethical boundaries to prevent large outcomes and to create a financially desperate plaintiff.
“Where’s the justice?” asked Cristy Frazier, Brian’s mother. Where indeed.
The legal finance industry of which Lawsuit Financial is a part, was born out of frustration with conduct like just like this. The longer a case takes to resolve, the more desperate a disabled plaintiff becomes. Legal funding from a reputable lawsuit finance company, like Lawsuit Financial Corporation, will temporarily remove financial desperation, even the odds, and allow the plaintiff time to obtain and injury appropriate settlement. Whether you have lost a loved one or been injured in a train accident and need funding now, or need lawsuit funding for any other type of personal injury case call us, toll free, at 1-877-377-SUIT, or, visit www.lawsuitfinancial.com.
“Where’s the justice”, Cristy? It starts with a great, persistent, lawyer (you have one in Mr. Pottroff), continues with a fair judge and a responsible jury, and, if litigants need a little financial help along the way, Lawsuit Financial will try to leverage its money to buy time to get the justice they deserve. My condolences to all of those effected by this tragedy; may you continue to seek justice and may your efforts be rewarded, soon.