published Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

Jurors to begin deliberations today in $25 million train death lawsuit

  • photo
    Lisa Barnes looks to her attorney while in Judge Neil Thomas III's courtroom during the fifth day of a civil trial in which Lisa Barnes (mother of Hannah Barnes) is suing the Hennen Restaurant Group, alleging that her daughter's Aug. 22, 2011, death on train tracks nearly the McDonald Farm can be attributed to her consuming alcohol while working at the restaurant hours before. Both Hannah Barnes and Michael Hennen died when a train struck them.
    Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Jurors are scheduled to begin deliberations today in a $25 million lawsuit involving the deaths of a local restaurateur's son and a 19-year-old female employee.

The trial in Hamilton County Circuit Court today enters its eighth day, stretched over three weeks because of court scheduling and winter weather delays.

Lisa Barnes, mother of deceased Hannah Barnes, sued Hennen Restaurant Group, Norfolk Southern Railway and family members of deceased Michael Hennen, 27, son of restaurant owner Tim Hennen.

The trial is against the restaurant group. Court documents indicate the railway is reaching an out-of-court settlement.

Barnes alleges that her daughter drank alcohol at the restaurant in the hours before she and Michael Hennen were struck by a 250-ton train while lying on railroad tracks near McDonald Farm in Sale Creek at 5:50 a.m. on Aug. 22, 2011.

If jurors agree that evidence shown in the trial shows Hannah Barnes drank at the restaurant and then hold the business liable, they could award damages to Lisa Barnes.

Most of Tuesday was a typical battle of experts for both sides.

Jurors heard testimony of plaintiff toxicology expert Jimmie Valentine, who disputed earlier testimony of defense expert Alphonse Poklis about the sampling of blood to test for alcohol levels in both Hannah Barnes' and Michael Hennen's bodies.

Poklis first said Friday that because of the way the samples were taken on the traumatized bodies, undigested alcohol could have mixed with the blood sample, causing the alcohol level to rise.

Valentine testified Tuesday that the blood-alcohol levels were likely accurate, possibly even low.

Al Henry, Hennen's attorney, called Frank King, retired Hamilton County medical examiner, who testified that he never characterized the samples as reliable to determine how much alcohol either of the deceased consumed or what level of blood-alcohol content existed when they died.

Measurements taken by Hamilton County Medical Examiner Dr. James Metcalfe showed that Hannah Barnes blood-alcohol level as 0.07 and Michael Hennen's as 0.086.

John Mark Griffin, one of Barnes' two attorneys, questioned why King hadn't shared his opinion of the blood sample reliability for alcohol testing until after he was contacted by former Hamilton County District Attorney Gary Gerbitz.

Gerbitz represented the Hennen family in a life insurance claim following Michael Hennen's death. The insurance company initially denied the claim due to the high level of alcohol in his blood, according to court testimony.

Sue Markley, owner of 1401 Gallery in Warehouse Row, testified that she employed Lisa Barnes for eight years and went with police to tell her of Hannah's death when she received the news at the gallery.

Markley fired Lisa Barnes four weeks after Hannah's death. She testified that she'd considered dismissing her before the tragic death.

She said the timing of the firing was "horrible," but she wanted Lisa Barnes and herself to "move forward."

C. Mark Warren, one of Barnes attorneys, questioned the timing of the firing, asking Markley how many of her gallery's clients lived in Lookout Mountain, where the Hennens also live. Markley estimated 30 percent of her clients live on Lookout Mountain, as does she.

Warren then read through a list of birthday party guests of Corrine Hennen at Hennen's on Aug. 21, hours before the train collision.

Nearly all of the names were friends of or known to Markley. Many were customers of her gallery.

Hannah Barnes worked as a food server with another member of the wait staff that evening and received a $150 cash tip for her work.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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