published Friday, January 24th, 2014

Trial begins in Hamilton County train fatalities

There are many questions about why two young people lay on train tracks near McDonald Farm at about 6 a.m. on Aug. 22, 2011.

A 250-ton Norfolk Southern Railway train struck and killed them. Now the trial of a $25 million lawsuit in Hamilton County Circuit Court may reveal some details about what happened in the hours leading up to the deaths of Hannah Barnes, 19, and Michael Hennen, 27.

But the question of why the pair were on the tracks isn't likely to be answered.

A key point attorneys are arguing is whether Barnes and Hennen, a hostess and server, drank alcohol at Hennen's Restaurant in the hours before their deaths.

If so, Barnes' attorneys argue, then the restaurant played a part in the underage woman's death. The Hennen Restaurant Group is a defendant.

No criminal charges were pursued in the deaths. Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond declared the event a "tragic accident" shortly after officers concluded their investigation.

Lisa Barnes, the mother of Hannah Barnes, filed the lawsuit in July 2012. The trial began with jury selection Tuesday in Judge Neil Thomas III's court.

On Thursday, Barnes' attorneys, C. Mark Warren and John Mark Griffin, called a restaurant and bar expert and current and former Hennen's Restaurant employees to testify.

Warren questioned witnesses on Hennen's alcohol policies, which included pre-shift alcohol tastings. Ivan Thomas, a manager at Hennen's, testified that servers tasted wine at such meetings but spit it out.

Thomas said he'd seen Barnes participate in the tastings.

Jonathan Maley, a former manager at Hennen's, also testified that servers would taste alcohol.

Through an expert witness, Warren tried to show that a "culture of drinking" at Hennen's led to Hannah Barnes drinking at the bar, though she was underage.

But attorneys for Hennen's, Alaric Henry and Robert Carden, argued that there was no evidence of a "culture of drinking" or that Hannah Barnes or Michael Hennen had consumed alcohol while at the restaurant.

Security camera footage of the pair at the bar between 1 and 2 a.m. was recorded over. But Maley watched a portion of it hours after the incident.

He testified that he saw Michael Hennen behind the bar with a white Styrofoam cup and Hannah Barnes at the end of the bar. He watched about 90 seconds of the video before shutting it off, he testified.

Evidence mentioned in court documents and during the trial shows the pair were at the restaurant until after 3 a.m. and then went to the Walmart on Signal Mountain Road.

Hennen purchased a swimsuit and beach ball for Barnes. They stopped at a gas station and bought water, cigarettes and Gummi Bears.

The pair then drove to McDonald Farm, parked near a building and then walked to the train tracks, where they lay down and fell asleep, according to court documents.

The trial does not include Norfolk Southern representatives. Documents indicate that parties are working on an out-of-court settlement.

Court documents allege that the train conductor, Van Barrett, 63, failed to do anything to slow the train when he spotted people on the tracks.

Barrett saw a "man lying on the track on his back looking at the night sky" as the train approached the couple, but he never told the engineer, whose job it is to brake the train, the lawsuit alleges. Just before impact Barrett and the engineer, John C. Johnson, saw, "someone laying on the rails with their legs in the air" and then saw the pair wake and try to get off the tracks.

"They never sounded the horn. They never sounded the whistle. They never rang the bells. They never flashed the lights. They never attempted to slow the train ..." according to court documents.

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

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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