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This week, a judge in Washington Country, Minnesota awarded $4 million to the families of four young people who were killed in a 2003 accident with a train run by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp.

Judge Ellen Mass, who granted the award, found that Burlington Northern had committed “staggering” misconduct in covering up its role in the accident, which had been caused largely by a faulty crossing gate. (The train engineer originally testified that the youngsters’ car had gone around a lowered crossing gate to cause the accident; later, the jury determined that the gate hadn’t been working at all.)

Maas found that the railroad company lost or fabricated evidence, interfered with the families’ investigation of the accident and "knowingly advanced lies, misleading facts and/or misrepresentations" in order to conceal the truth.

The railroad, Maas noted, "has attempted to explain away each instance of misconduct as either an innocent mistake or a mere coincidence. … This court is not persuaded."

"When encountering conduct as egregious as that of BNSF, this court … has a duty to impose sanctions of a sufficient severity in order to deter future misconduct of the same caliber,” Maas ruled. –

According to evidence presented at trial, Burlington Northern began trying to cover up its role in the accident within the first few minutes after it had happened. The $4 million award, intended to punish the company for its egregious behavior, comes on top of a previous $21.6 million jury award, issued last year, when the jury determined that Burlington Northern was 90% at fault for the accident.

A company should never get away with this kind of cover-up. Kudos to Judge Maas for her decision.

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