AT THE Crossroads
A train collides with a car full of young people,
slicing the vehicle in two. There are heart-wrenching
phone calls. One is to attorney Sharon L. Van Dyck
BY AIMÉE GROTH
PHOTOGRAPHY BY LARRY MARCUS
IT’S DEVASTATING ENOUGH TO LOSE A LOVED ONE
IN A TRAGIC CAR ACCIDENT. TO HAVE TO RELIVE
THE PAIN EVERY DAY, WAITING ON WHIMS OF THE
MINNESOTA LEGAL SYSTEM, DRAINS THE SOUL.
That’s what the parents of Brian Frazier, Bridgette Shannon, Corey
Chase and Harry Rhoades Jr.—none of whom were older than 20 when
they died after their car was struck by a train—have grappled with for
nearly a decade. At the time of publication, the Minnesota Supreme
Court had yet to decide whether or not to uphold a $21.6 million verdict
levied against Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. (BNSF).
“These families didn’t know each other,” says appellate and
personal injury attorney Sharon L. Van Dyck, who represents the
Chase family. “These kids were going to a party and didn’t make
it. When we started this case, it was four completely different
families—three of which sued the fourth and BNSF.”
On Sept. 26, 2003, a freight train collided with Frazier’s
Chevrolet Cavalier on Ferry Street just north of Highway 10 in
Anoka. Presumably, the only eyewitness was the train’s engineer,
though BNSF disputes this. At issue is whether the crossing gate
was working—and if Frazier had tried to drive around the gate.
In the early stages of the case, it was assumed he tried to drive
around the gate. But in the light of new evidence, or lack of it,
Washington County Judge Ellen Maas gradually granted the
plaintiffs broader discovery and sanctioned BNSF $4.2 million for
abuse of the legal process nearly a year after the trial. The Frazier
family joined forces with the other three families two years into the
discovery process, well before the initial May 2008 trial.
The litigation has taken a toll on the families. “It hurts them. They
cry, they don’t want to go on,” says Van Dyck. “Sometimes one of the
fathers can’t come to things. But they are just determined.”
The case is one of the highest-stakes cases yet of her career.
Van Dyck began working on it while at Minnesota personal injury
powerhouse Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben, and stayed involved with
the case, even after leaving the firm in 2007 to hang up her own
shingle. Today, she manages the one-woman Van Dyck Law Firm,
with the support of her legal assistant, in St. Louis Park.
It doesn’t fit Schwebel’s model to take on these railway cases,
Van Dyck explains. “[They’re] big, expensive, high-risk cases,
because if you lose them—that’s three and a half years and a few
thousand hours, which is what I had put into the Frazier case. It’s a
black hole of time, effort and energy.”