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OK Supreme Court Upholds $10.7 Million Verdict in Fatal Train Accident Case

Posted on July 23, 2018

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has upheld a $10.7 million verdict in a fatal crash; involving a Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Train.

On June 19, 2018, the Supreme Court of Oklahoma affirmed a wrongful death judgment in favor of the estate of a driver killed in a 2008 motor vehicle collision with a Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) train. Rejecting the railroad’s arguments on appeal; the justices said the case “was correctly presented to the jury;” therefore it was not the Court’s function to second-guess the jury’s final determination.

The fatal accident took place on December 29, 2008. The victim, Jeffrey Nye, was driving a Jeep with an attached cargo trailer; at a railroad crossing on County Road 1660; in Pontotoc County, Oklahoma. A BNSF train suddenly struck the Jeep, killing Mr. Nye. Subsequently, his widow filed a wrongful death lawsuit; accusing BNSF of failing to install adequate warnings at the railroad crossing; along with other acts of negligence.

The case was tried before a jury in December 2013. The jurors heard multiple witnesses testify that the crossing was “obstructed by overgrown vegetation; trees and brush.” Also, that the train’s crew “never sounded the train’s horn;” before the collision. BNSF maintained Mr. Nye’s own negligence contributed to the accident; he should have seen a “plainly visible approaching train”; and that federal law preempted the lawsuit entirely.

The jury ultimately determined BNSF was 65 percent responsible for Mr. Nye’s death.

It awarded total damages to his estate of $14,813,000. After reducing the award to account for Mr. Nye’s contributory negligence; the final judgment of just over $10.7 million plus interest.

After the trial judge rejected BNSF’s motion for a directed verdict in its favor, or a new trial; the railroad appealed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. The justices unanimously rejected the company’s arguments.

Also, the Court focused primarily on BNSF’s “preemption” argument. Personal injury claims are governed by the law of the state where the accident takes place. However; Congress passed the Railroad Safety Act (RSA) in 1970; which preempts any state-law challenge to the “adequacy” of warning devices at railroad crossings funded by the federal government. BNSF argued this preemption rule applied to the Nye estate’s claims; however, the Supreme Court said the railroad could not prove that; “that the warning signs erected at County Road 1660 were federally funded.”

Tulsa car accident attorney Charles Bryan Alred said the Supreme Court’s decision was a victory for the jury system and common sense. “We trust civil juries in Oklahoma to weigh the evidence and reach a just verdict. That is exactly what happened in this case. BNSF attempted to do a legal end-run around the jury by citing an applicable federal law. The State Supreme Court not only rejected this effort; it also rebuffed the railroad’s efforts to shift 100 percent of the blame for the accident; onto the deceased driver. The Court’s decision sends a clear message; Big business cannot avoid legal responsibility in Oklahoma for the consequences of their negligent acts.” For a free consultation regarding your case contact at us at (918) 745-9960.