Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway could end up paying more than $6 million that a federal jury has awarded to the estate of a Hardin man who was killed at a rail crossing.
If the verdict stands, it would be among the largest jury awards ever in state or federal court in Montana.
An eight-person U.S. District Court jury in Billings found the railroad negligent Friday in the death of 23-year-old Larry M. Dorn. Dorn died Dec. 2, 1999, when his grain truck was hit by a train at a crossing south of Hardin.
Jurors assigned 65 percent of the responsibility for the fatal accident to BNSF. Dorn was found 35 percent responsible.
The jury awarded his estate $1,008,000 for survivorship benefits for lost wages and fringe benefits, household services and funeral bills, and $1 million for wrongful death, to cover mental distress and grief suffered by his family.
The jurors also agreed that the case warranted punitive damages and came back Saturday with a verdict of $5 million.
The $1,008,000 survivorship award will be reduced by 35 percent to reflect Dorn's role in the accident. U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull will determine if the wrongful death award should be reduced as well. The $5 million in punitive damages will remain intact.
According to information in the case files, on the day of the accident, Dorn was hauling grain to Harvest States Elevator about three miles south of town. To get to the elevator, he had to drive over the tracks at the Reno Railroad Crossing in a westerly direction.
At the same time, a southbound BNSF train was headed toward the crossing. The train crew tried to stop when the truck was spotted, but was unable to avoid a collision. Dorn was not killed instantly, but died at the scene.
He left a wife and a 2-month-old daughter.
Late in December, Kristi W. Dorn, acting on behalf of the estate, charged in a lawsuit that the railroad's negligence caused the accident.
She maintained that the sharp angle of the crossing obscured the view of approaching trains to truckers who must drive over the tracks to get to the elevator. The railroad failed to provide and maintain a safe crossing at a place the company knew was frequently used by grain trucks, court documents said.
BNSF was aware that the crossing was dangerous as far back as 1975 and 1976, when other nonfatal accidents occurred there, the plaintiff argued. But in the time since, the railroad did nothing to correct the problem. Her complaint also alleged that BNSF failed to operate its trains at a safe and reasonable speed, given the condition of the crossing and its regular use by trucks. The train was traveling about 55 mph just before it struck Dorn.
"We have a unanimous jury of jurors from around the Billings Division," said Alexander Blewett, the Great Falls attorney representing the estate, on Wednesday. "It's pretty clear to me they found the railroad guilty of malice, because they refused to fix the crossing. That's what this lawsuit was really all about. Hopefully now the railroad will go out and fix the crossing. I think that's what the jurors wanted, too."
Gus Melonas, spokesman for BNSF, said he wouldn't discuss the verdict now because the judgment has not been entered by the judge, and the judge still has issues to consider.
"This is a matter under litigation, and until a judgment is entered, we're not in a position to comment further," he said.
The railroad argued in court documents that Dorn was responsible for the accident, not BNSF. Dorn was familiar with the crossing, and had been warned by a co-worker the morning he died to watch for trains. Dorn failed to stop, look and listen, railroad attorneys maintained.
They also asserted that the crew used the train whistle and bell a quarter-mile from the crossing, and that the train's headlights and ditch lights were on at the time. The angle of the crossing did not prevent Dorn from seeing the train, according to the railroad. If he had used ordinary care, they contended, Dorn would have seen and heard the train coming.
Trial before Cebull lasted all week and into Saturday of the Memorial Day weekend.