published Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

Sale Creek train victim's mom sues for $25 million

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Parties named in lawsuit

• Hennen's Restaurant

• Tim and Corrine Hennen

• Michael Luhowiak, administrator of Michael Hennen's estate

• McDonald Farms, LLC

• Norfolk Southern Railway

Nearly a year after two young people were killed by a train in an incident officials called a "tragic accident," the mother of one victim has filed a $25 million lawsuit against family of the man who was killed with her.

Hannah Barnes, 19, and Michael Hennen, 27, were struck and killed by a southbound train early Aug. 22, 2011, after investigators said they fell asleep on a railway crossing at the Hennens' family's farm in Sale Creek.

In her lawsuit, Lisa Barnes, Hannah's mother, has also named Michael Hennen's estate, along with the family farm and Norfolk Southern Railway, which operates the train that killed the pair.

Hannah Barnes was a hostess and server at Hennen's Restaurant that summer, and Michael Hennen was her supervisor. Both were working at a birthday party for Michael Hennen's mother, Corinne, the night before the incident and drove to the McDonald Farm afterwards around 3 a.m.

The 17-page complaint, filed last week by attorneys Mark Warren and John Mark Griffin, insists the accident was preventable and that the deaths resulted from compounded acts of negligence from the restaurant, the Hennens, the farm and the train company.

As of Monday, none of the parties had filed an answer in the lawsuit. Tim Hennen, Michael's father and owner of Hennen's, declined to comment Monday.

Susan Terpay, spokeswoman for Norfolk Southern, said the company does "not comment on litigation issues."

Attorney Michael Luhowiak, administrator of Michael Hennen's estate, did not return requests for comment Monday.

The suit states that the teenage Barnes was provided with alcoholic drinks to the point of intoxication "either directly or indirectly" by Hennen's Restaurant, Michael Hennen and his parents both before and after she clocked out of work that night.

Toxicology results taken after the deaths showed that both Hannah Barnes and Michael Hennen were just under the limit for drunken driving at the time they died, newspaper archives show.

After clocking out, the two drove out to McDonald Farm for a late-night swim, stopping to buy a bathing suit, beach ball, cigarettes, water and gummy bears along the way. At the farm, their plans changed.

"Instead of going swimming, Michael Hennen and Hannah walked in the dark to the crossing and laid down, presumably to talk and look at the stars," the suit states.

Michael Hennen "breached his duty of care when he led an intoxicated Hannah to the railroad tracks and convinced her to lie down," the complaint reads.

The lawsuit also claims that the train crossing where the two laid down was "poorly lit" and that the farm's owners had entered into an agreement with Norfolk Southern that trains would not blow a horn or whistle as they approached the farm's crossing.

"As the sound of the train approached, Hannah awoke and was frozen with fear as she grappled with her dire and deadly situation," the suit reads.

Barnes' attorneys did not return requests for comment about the evidence they had for that statement.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said last year that images captured by a camera on the train showed the couple in an embrace, and that neither stirred nor changed position as the train approached.

The suit further states that the conductor of the Norfolk Southern train saw a person on a track but failed to inform the engineer and that "valuable time passed" that could have given Hannah Barnes and Michael Hennen more time to save themselves.

Michael Hennen was the great-grandson of Roy McDonald, who founded the Chattanooga Free Press, and grandson of Frank McDonald, who was president of the paper from 1969-2000.

Barnes was the granddaughter of Marion Barnes, president of Covenant College from 1965 to 1978.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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