Lawyers representing families of victims in a deadly train crash near Larimore are arguing a $500,000 limit on damages paid out to the victims is unconstitutional and are demanding four times the amount.
The crash, in which a train collided with a school bus at a rail crossing in January just outside Larimore, claimed the lives of the bus driver and a 17-year-old student and sent 10 other children aboard the bus to regional hospitals.
A state Highway Patrol investigation found the cause of the crash was driver error, saying video from the train showed the driver did not stop at the stop sign at the train tracks. The investigation found the driver, 62-year-old Max Danner, did not suffer from any medical complication at the time of the crash, as was widely speculated.
Larimore Public School District, which employed Danner, who also taught at the school, is expected to be held liable for the crash.
What has caused dispute in the weeks and months following the crash is the state law that capped the amount in damages a school district -- or other public entity -- may pay out for injuries resulting from a single accident -- no matter how many victims there are.
The legislation, which lawmakers changed after the accident, limited the amount in payable damages to $500,000, which is widely considered inadequate to compensate the victims and their medical and insurance providers.
Paul and Judy Sandstrom, whose daughter Cassidy died in the crash and whose son Matthew underwent surgery at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota in Minneapolis, filed a document last week in U.S. District Court through their attorney, arguing the $500,000 limit violates the North Dakota Constitution.
In the document filed Dec. 14, Kim Brust, the Fargo attorney representing the Sandstroms, argues the cap violates the Sandstroms’ due process rights and denies them equal protection under the law.
The School District and its insurer, North Dakota Insurance Reserve Fund, filed an action last month in U.S. District Court, proposing to establish a fund of $500,000, which the court would devise a way of dividing among the victims’ families and their insurance and medical providers.
Brust said the fund should be $2 million.
He wrote the coverage the School District had from the Insurance Reserve Fund allowed for up to $2 million in payable damages, and he asked the court to order the insurer to deposit $2 million in an account to then be divided among the families and medical and insurance providers.
Some of the child victims and their families will feel the effects of the crash far into the future.
Brust noted the Sandstrom’s son suffered a traumatic brain injury, fractures to the bones in his right leg and injury to his pancreas.
The Sandstroms are seeking noneconomic damages, including for mental anguish, grief, pain and suffering, for the death of their daughter and their son’s injuries, the court document said. They are also seeking economic damages, including compensation for burial costs, medical expenses and loss of earning capacity.
Michael and Carrie Schwab, parents of four children on the bus, seconded the Sandstrom’s demands, calling the liability limit unconstitutional and calling on the judge to order the Insurance Reserve Fund to pay $2 million, in a document signed by Duane Lillehaug, a Fargo-based attorney, and filed the following day, Dec. 15.