Union Pacific not negligent in crash that killed 4 near Fresno, jury finds

A memorial made of steel with four railroad spikes honors the four people who were killed in August 2013 when their car collided with an Union Pacific Railroad train on Jefferson Avenue near Golden State Boulevard south of Fresno.
A memorial made of steel with four railroad spikes honors the four people who were killed in August 2013 when their car collided with an Union Pacific Railroad train on Jefferson Avenue near Golden State Boulevard south of Fresno.

A Fresno County jury Wednesday absolved Union Pacific of blamein the deaths of four people in a car that ran a stop sign before it was hit by a freight train south of Fresno nearly four years ago.

The jury of nine women and three men deliberated about seven hours over two days before finding Union Pacific and co-defendant Zim Industries not negligent.

It was a blow for the families of the victims who sought $29 million in damages from Union Pacific and Fresno-based Zim Industries, claiming the defendants cut corners when they designed and maintained an unguarded private railroad crossing on Jefferson Avenue near Golden State Boulevard.

The Superior Court verdict ended a monthlong wrongful death civil trial that accused Union Pacific and Zim Industries of causing the deaths of driver Michaela Helen Smith, 19, of Sanger, and three passengers: Reuben Esteven Fernandez, 20, Angelina Maria Velasquez, 18, and David Nicholas Alonzo Jr., 21, all of Fresno. A fourth passenger, Alexandra Sanchez Martinez, then 19, of Fresno was the lone survivor.

After the verdict was announced, Judge Donald S. Black told the families: “I know it’s not what you wanted, but I hope it brings some closure for your loss.”

The collision happened early Aug. 19, 2013, after the victims attended a meeting where they learned to sell energy drinks.

The trial was of public interest because the same street conditions that led to the deadly collision exist today and Union Pacific has done nothing to fix them, contended Fresno attorneys Warren Paboojian and René Sample, who represented the families of Fernandez, Velasquez and Smith. Alonzo’s family settled with Union Pacific and Zim Industries prior to trial for an undisclosed sum. Martinez, the lone survivor, also settled before trial.

During the trial, jurors repeatedly viewed a key piece of evidence: a black-and-white video taken by the Union Pacific freight train that shows Smith braking at a stop sign and then the car slowly moving into the train’s path. Jurors heard the train engineer blasting the horn right before impact. The video then shows pieces of the car flying in front of the train’s windshield.

In representing the families, Paboojian and Sample said the railroad crossing has no warning lights or crossing arms to warn motorists of fast-moving trains. The area also has no streetlights, they said.

The Jefferson Avenue train crossing is unusual, Paboojian and Sample said, because it is a private road that is primarily used by Zim Industries, a well-digging and irrigation-equipment business. There are standard red stop signs on both sides of the track, and white signs under the stop signs that say: “Private RXR Crossing. No Trespassing.” (Before testimony began, Black told the jury that the victims were not trespassing on the night they were killed.)

The word “Stop” also was on the pavement before the stop sign, but it was not painted with reflective paint, Paboojian and Sample said. In addition, the pavement did not have a limit line to tell motorists where to stop, they said.

If Jefferson Avenue had been a public railroad crossing, Union Pacific would have been required to have crossing arms or warning signs and lights, said Paboojian, who represented the mothers of Fernandez and Velasquez, and Sample, who represents the parents of Smith. But once the railroad and Zim Industries learned that it would cost them $250,000 to install warning signs and crossing arms, they decided against it, Paboojian said.

Attorneys for Union Pacific and Zim Industries, however, contended that Smith was at fault because she failed to obey a stop sign. The lawyers also said the California Public Utilities Commission only requires the stop sign and white warning sign.

“Clearly the train was visible to any motorist paying attention,” said Rocklin attorney Jacob D. Flesher, who represented Union Pacific and noted that the train had distinct headlights and its horn was blowing when the collision happened.

“If she had stopped at the stop sign, we would not be here,” said San Francisco attorney Charles H. Horn, who represented Zim Industries.

Because the victims’ families believed the Jefferson Avenue crossing was dangerous, they turned down a six-figure settlement offer from Union Pacific, Paboojian said.

“This was never about money,” Sample said.

“We wanted the jury to send a message to Union Pacific that it can’t have trains rumbling through our community at 40 to 50 miles per hour without crossings having gates and warning lights,” Paboojian said.

But the jurors thought differently, voting 11-1 to find Union Pacific not at fault and 12-0 to vindicate Zim Industries.

Afterward, Paboojian said the Jefferson Avenue crossing needs to be closed to ensure no one else gets hurt or killed. “I strongly disagree with the verdict, but I respect our jury system,” he said.

He then criticized the jury’s decision: “If they think railroad crossings only need a stop sign, then they should take every crossing gate out of Fresno and see what happens.”

Late Wednesday, the railroad issued a statement: “Union Pacific is grateful to the jury for their time throughout this legal process and our thoughts remain with the families during this undoubtedly difficult time.”

The trial, however, didn’t end on a sour note. Before they left the downtown Fresno courthouse, the mothers of the victims hugged the train’s engineer, R.D. Green, who witnessed the deadly collision and had to relive it each time the video was played for the jury. The mothers told Green he was not to blame for their children’s deaths. Instead, they said, God has a plan for him and their children.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts