At 11 p.m. one evening, 16-year-old Jody Holz was riding his 750cc Yamaha motorcycle on a little-traveled road in Whatcom County. Burlington Northern had parked a freight train with a black tank car across the county road. Jody collided with the tank car and died.
Brett McCandlis Brown & Conner attorney Dean Brett took on the case for Jody’s family.
The primary issue turned out to be whether the train was “plainly visible” to the approaching motorcyclist. By court order, Burlington Northern was forced to provide a tank car for accident reconstruction. An identical motorcycle was brought to the scene, and a professional photographer took photos of the tank car illuminated only by the motorcycle’s headlight from 50 to 450 feet back from the tank car. A videotape was then produced showing each black and white photograph measured at exact one second intervals. When played back, the videotape thus created “the last nine seconds of Jody Holz’s life.” The train became visible only for the last two seconds or 100 feet, far too late to avoid the collision.
Throughout the trial, Burlington Northern denied negligence, denied that the industry standard was applicable, and claimed it was merely a rule to ensure that emergency vehicles are not impeded. The jury found Burlington Northern 95% responsible for the collision.
Whatcom County was also brought into the lawsuit because the county failed to place railroad pavement markings, and that the county failed to illuminate the railroad crossing. The jury assessed 2.5% of the responsibility for the collision against Whatcom County.
Defendants Burlington Northern and Whatcom County tried to establish contributory negligence by claiming that Jody was riding without a helmet, with defective brakes, with headlights inappropriately placed in the dim position, and at an excessive rate of speed. The jury found Jody 2.5% negligent.
The total verdict was $752,600.