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2001 – Railroad Collision and the Missing Signal Post

In 1993, a veteran lead engineer was operating a train in heavy fog when he spotted a red stop light at an approaching intersection with another rail line.  Using an emergency braking maneuver, he managed to stop the lead engine a few feet into the crossing.  Seconds later, an approaching train collided nearly head-on into the stopped train, causing the engineer’s death and serious injuries to other crew members.  One year later, a lawsuit was filed by the engineer’s estate and family members, who claimed that a faulty positioned and unlit distance signal which, if visible, would have warned of the approaching intersection, caused the collision.

Seven years later, in 2000, the case went to trial in the 342nd District Court.  In the interim, both sides had inspected the scene of the collision, including the distance signal and had videotaped the signal as they rode a train over the tracks while the signal was in place.  But by the time of trial, for unknown reasons the actual signal post had been taken from the accident scene; it was missing and could not be found. 

At trial, the railroad’s attorneys used a “typical” distance signal that had been pieced together from other used signals as a demonstrative aid.  This exhibit was different from the original signal - it had newer equipment and a more powerful light bulb.  Its surface had also been wiped clean before it had been brought into the courtroom.  When the judge learned of this, he accused the railroad’s attorneys of altering evidence, declared a mistrial, imposed a $10,000 fine against the railroad’s attorney personally and levied a $10,000,000 fine against the railroad.  Several days later, however, without explanation, the judge set aside the fines and recused himself from presiding any further over the case.

Shortly thereafter, the Presiding Regional Judge assigned the case to Judge Bonnie Sudderth of the 352nd District Court.  Prior to retrial of the case, plaintiffs sought to have the sanctions reinstated.  Judge Sudderth denied the request, finding that nothing in the record showed that the railroad had tried to pass off the exhibit as something that it wasn’t.  “It seems abundantly clear that everyone in the courtroom – the judge, the attorneys, the witness and the jury – knew that the signal was a demonstrative aid, and nothing more.”  The signal, Judge Sudderth ruling against the sanctions motion, could have been “run through a car wash” with no harm, since everyone in the courtroom was aware that it was an exemplar, not the original signal.  However, the judge did find that by failing to preserve such a critical piece of evidence, the railroad had “negligently destroyed” it, and Judge Sudderth gave the jury a spoliation instruction that they could “presume that the destroyed signal was unfavorable” to the railroad’s position in the lawsuit.

Less than a year later, it was tried again to a jury, who found no negligence on the part of the railway or the engineer at the time of the collision.  (The National Transportation Safety Board had also investigated the incident and found no fault on the part of the railroad or any of its crew members.)  The jury’s verdict was not appealed, and the parties later reached a confidential financial settlement to  finally put the matter to rest.

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