Amtrak and the city of South Jordan were not to blame for a car-train accident that killed three Sandy teenagers in 1995, the Utah Court of Appeals has ruled.
However, in a partial dissent, one of the three judges excoriated South Jordan for failing to upgrade the railroad crossing.
The 14-page decision, released by the court on Friday, concerned the deaths on Dec. 31, 1995, of Jamie Swensen, 19, Brent Larrabee, 18, and Aaron Price, 18. The three friends were riding in the second of three cars that were crossing the railroad tracks at 10200 South and 300 West.
The first car made it across in front of a northbound train, but the teens in the second died when the Amtrak train slammed into the car. Parents of the teens filed suit against the railroad and South Jordan.
Plaintiffs were Daniel D. and Susanne Q. Price, Kent and Kay Swensen, and Ross and Carma Larrabee. Defendants were National Railroad Passenger Corp. (Amtrak), Southern Pacific Transportation Corp. and South Jordan.
A number of drivers have died at the site, where there are no lights or crossing arms, the Deseret News noted soon after the accident. Instead, the crossing was marked with a stop sign and X-shaped black-and-white emblems.
Passengers in the caravan said it was hard to tell lights from the approaching train from vehicle lights on I-15, 50 yards to the west.
Parents of the teens said the railroad had a duty to upgrade warning devices at the crossing or to urge the Utah Department of Transportation to do so because the crossing was extraordinarily hazardous.
"We disagree," says the decision, which is signed by Judges Judith M. Billings, William A. Thorne Jr. and Gregory K. Orme.
The decision notes that the teens' car came to a full stop at the crossing for up to three seconds, then began to cross the tracks. The train, traveling around 68 mph, struck the car.
An investigation found that alcohol was not a factor in the accident.
"The railroad defendants had no duty either to install or to request that UDOT install additional or different warning devices," the appeals court ruled.
The parents argued that Amtrak had a duty to put on the train's brakes at the crossing because the crew saw the three cars approaching and worried they might cross in front of the train. But the judges wrote the duty to brake did not begin until the teens' car drove onto the tracks. And "plaintiffs offered no evidence that the train could have slowed enough in a few seconds to avoid the accident," the court ruled.
In the action against South Jordan, the judges wrote, "We are persuaded that South Jordan exercised basic policy evaluation, judgment and expertise in attempting to provide convenient access while seeking to remedy the safety difficulties inherent from railroad tracks running through the city."
Documents show South Jordan had debated a number of alternatives to improve traffic safety while considering budgetary and other constraints, the court noted.
"Although hindsight may reveal that South Jordan used poor judgment in not closing the crossing when the city recognized the crossing was dangerous and UDOT repeatedly asked it to install active restraints or close the crossing, our review is limited to whether basic policy evaluation, judgment and expertise were exercised, not whether they were exercised well," the court ruled.
Orme wrote a dissent saying that in one respect he disagreed with the majority. "I am not prepared to hold, as a matter of law, that the municipality's failure to do anything to improve the safety at the crossing was the product of a careful policy judgment," he wrote.
"On the contrary, there are indications in the record that over the course of many years, UDOT called the unsafe condition of the crossing to South Jordan's attention, repeatedly beseeched it to do something, and offered to help plan and fund the improvements."
Instead of responding to this, Orme added, "there are indications the city simply dropped the ball, essentially ignoring UDOT's expressed concerns and doing nothing."