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Railroads, state face lawsuit from fatal crash

Author / Coordinator: April Scheinoha
Thief River Falls Times
July 2006


The family of an Arbog, Manitoba, Canada, man has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against two railroad companies and the state of Minnesota for the man’s 2005 death near Thief River Falls.

The family of the late Robbie David Gordon Johnson, 21, is suing Northern Plains Railroad Inc., Canadian Pacific Railway and the state of Minnesota for an amount in excess of $50,000 from each plaintiff. The Johnson family is also requesting “pre- and post-judgment interest and such other and further relief that the court deems just and equitable premises.” The lawsuit will be filed in Pennington County District Court; however, as of Monday afternoon, the Court Administrator’s Office hadn’t received anything about the case.

The lawsuit alleges the railroad companies and the state were negligent in Johnson’s death on Jan. 28, 2005. He died after the semi he was driving collided with a Northern Plains train at a Highway 59 railroad crossing north of Thief River Falls. At that time, the train was being driven on railroad tracks that Northern Plains leases from Canadian Pacific. Johnson was pronounced dead at the scene.

At the time of the accident, a warning system was disabled after an unidentified Minnesota Department of Transportation snowplow operator struck the southeast railroad crossing signal Jan. 3, 2005, a Federal Railroad Administration report indicated. The FRA noted that issue, as well as weather and road conditions that evening, were contributing factors in the crash. It noted Johnson’s failure to yield to the train was the “probable cause of the collision.”

The plaintiffs haven’t yet been served their court papers regarding the case. Karen Bedeau, Mn/DOT public affairs coordinator, said she wasn’t aware of the lawsuit and wouldn’t be able to comment. She then told The Times on Monday morning that she would have another state employee contact the newspaper. As of press time, no one else had contacted The Times.

“As of now, we haven’t officially been served,” said Larry James, Northern Plains vice president of operations.


Laura Baenen, Canadian Pacific spokesperson, said she hasn’t seen copies of the court papers yet. “We would not comment on specific information,” she said.
The Times learned about the lawsuit Thursday when Minneapolis attorney Paul E. Godlewski, who is representing the Johnson family, sent the court papers to the newspaper. The court documents were dated July 17.

The lawsuit alleges the state of Minnesota was negligent since it “failed to change and/or place additional advance or supplemental advance warning signs on Highway 59.”

It further alleges that the crossing’s warning system was disabled and non-operational, directly causing the crash and Johnson’s death. The lawsuit also contends that the unidentified snowplow operator was negligent since he knocked down the southbound-facing active warning signal.

Regarding Northern Plains, the lawsuit alleges that the train crew failed to sound an emergency horn. It also contends both railroad companies failed to “maintain adequate sight lines” and to “maintain, inspect, repair, warn and keep free from dangers and defects its track, right-of-way and other property” at the crossing.


The lawsuit further alleges the railroad companies:

 • Failed to have a crew member “flag highway traffic to a stop before the train proceeded through the crossing”;

 • Failed to have a flag person at the crossing until the “active warning system was restored to normal operation”;

 • Failed to have a flag person other than a crew member at the crossing while the train was traveling over the crossing;

 • Failed to place fusees or other red lights to warn highway traffic of the nearby train; and

 • Failed to replace “a faulty component of the active warning signal system”
The lawsuit also contains a copy of an FRA report related to the fatal crash. The FRA report indicates the crossing was disabled with a stop and protect order on the evening of Jan. 28. “This rule requires the train to stop before entering the crossing at U.S. Highway 59, make certain a crew member provides on-ground protection, and not proceed over the crossing until the crew member gives permission.”

It also indicates the Minnesota State Patrol didn’t issue any citations that evening. The State Patrol found Johnson wasn’t current with his log book, and the FRA found that Johnson didn’t adhere to federal and state commercial driving statutes, including such things as not reducing his speed when hazardous conditions existed and not slowing down in such a way that would permit him to stop if he needed to at the railroad crossing. That evening, according to the FRA report, it was 28 degrees Fahrenheit. It was icy, and there was sleet and patches of fog.

The report stated that Canadian Pacific told the Northern Plains train conductor that he wouldn’t be able to enter the Canadian Pacific rail yard until 7 p.m. Jan. 28, 2005. At that time, a northbound Canadian Pacific train was planning to depart. As a result, the Northern Plains train stopped about four-tenths of a mile west of the Highway 59 crossing. At about 7 p.m., the unidentified train conductor was told he could proceed to the yard.

About half an hour later, the train crew stopped the train at the Highway 59 crossing and allowed an unidentified southbound vehicle to cross the railroad tracks, the report stated. The conductor and engineer both told investigators that “the highway was free of traffic.” The train then continued over the crossing. As the train traveled over the crossing, the engineer looked to the south. He saw an approaching northbound vehicle, the Banman Trucking semi that Johnson was driving. Thinking that the semi wouldn’t stop, the engineer “set the minimum reduction of train air brakes and reached for the company radio at the same time the vehicle struck the side of the train.”

The semi struck the 18th car of the train. The impact of the crash derailed five loaded grain cars. It also forced the crushed automobiles, which Johnson was hauling, to move forward. As  result, the semi’s cab was severed from the vehicle frame. Johnson was pronounced dead at the scene. His body was recovered about two hours after the crash.

“The coroner’s report lists blunt force trauma as the cause of death,” the FRA report said. “The coroner performed toxicological testing on the remains of the driver, and the results were negative.”

The train didn’t have a data event recorder, meaning the train’s speed wasn’t recorded. However, the engineer estimated the train was traveling 8 mph at the time of the crash.

Following its investigation with regard to Mn/DOT’s possible role in the crash, the FRA found Mn/DOT was contacted shortly after Jan. 3, 2005, about the first accident involving the snowplow operator. An unidentified signal maintainer requested that Mn/DOT provide money to repair the warning system as well as signs or a flag person to warn approaching  highway drivers. The state denied the latter request, but offered used replacement equipment.

Eighteen days later, damaged railroad crossing lights, crossbucks and a signal mast were replaced, the report indicated. However, the stop and protect order continued as the replacement signal needed more repairs and a pull-apart joint needed to be repaired.

A day after that, an unidentified local section foreman saw that the railroad crossing’s warning system was in operation even though there wasn’t a train on the railroad tracks. He disabled it, but didn’t tell the dispatcher or signal maintainer.

Two days after he disabled the system, the foreman told the signal maintainer about the problem he noticed. The signal maintainer did not investigate the problem.

Four days later, the lawsuit stated, “Unaware that a dark, slow-moving train occupied the crossing, and unaware that the active warning signal system was not operating, Robbie David Gordon Johnson crashed into the train.”


Paul E. Godlewski of the law firm Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben, P.A. represents the family of Robbie Johnson.

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