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Supreme Court rules against Larimore crash victims on damages cap

Dozens of emergency workers assemble near the site of Monday's fatal train-bus accident east of Larimore, N.D., in January 2015. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

BISMARCK—The victims of a train-bus crash that killed two people and hospitalized 10 children more than three years ago near Larimore, N.D., will be limited to splitting $500,000 in damages, North Dakota's highest court ruled Monday.

The statutory damage cap for tort claims against a political subdivision is constitutional, the State Supreme Court ruled in its opinion written by Justice Lisa McEvers. The ruling affirms the one issued by a Grand Forks District Court Judge.

The opinion comes three years after a BNSF train collided with a Larimore Public School bus on Jan. 5, 2015, about a half-mile east of Larimore. The bus driven by 62-year-old Max Danner came to an abrupt stop on the railroad tracks before it was hit by the train, killing him and 17-year-old Larimore High School senior Cassidy Sandstrom.

Ten of the other 12 children were sent to area hospitals, including Altru Hospital in Grand Forks.

Investigators determined the crash was the result of driver error.

Parents of the children involved in the crash, as well as BNSF, Altru Health System and a list of other medical agencies, sued the Larimore Public School School District, state of North Dakota and North Dakota Insurance Reserve Fund, saying a $500,000 damages limit was unconstitutional and not enough to cover damages for all parties involved. Kim Brust, an attorney representing the parents of Sandstrom, previously told the Herald the fund to pay for damages should be $2 million.

But all five justices who oversaw the case disagreed.

"We recognize the aggregate damage cap for claims against a political subdivision may not afford all claimants complete or perfect relief for multiple catastrophic claims from a single occurrence," McEvers wrote. "While we sympathize with those who have suffered a catastrophic injury and loss, we agree with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's rationale that the competing policy considerations involved with establishing damage caps for political subdivisions are legitimate considerations for the legislative branch.

"In our view, the establishment of the aggregate statutory damage cap at issue in this case represents a core legislative function with a sufficiently close correspondence to the legitimate legislative goals of providing affordable liability insurance for political subdivisions within applicable fiscal constraints."

Justice Jon Jensen, who was a Grand Forks district judge at the time of the crash, was disqualified from hearing the case.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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