Chattanooga jury clears Hennen Restaurant Group in teen's train death

Chattanooga jury clears Hennen Restaurant Group in teen's train death

February 6th, 2014 by Todd South in Local Regional News

Judge Neil Thomas III speaks to prosecution and defense attorneys during the fifth day of a civil trial in which Barnes (mother of Hannah Barnes) is suing the Hennen Restaurant Group, alleging that her daughter's Aug. 22, 2011, death on train tracks can be attributed to her consuming alcohol at while working at the restaurant hours before. Both Hannah Barnes and Michael Hennen died when a train struck them.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

TIMELINE MONDAY, AUG. 22, 2011

• After 2 a.m. -- Michael Hennen closes up Hennen's Restaurant after working a full shift; Hannah Barnes also worked at the restaurant that night.

• 2:40 a.m.-- The pair stops at the Walmart on Signal Mountain Boulevard, where Hennen purchases a women's swimsuit for Barnes.

Between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. -- Hennen buys snacks and water at the Kangaroo gas station near Bakewell, Tenn.

• 3:57 a.m. -- Hennen texts the caretaker at the McDonald Farm in Sale Creek to say that he and a friend are going for a swim on the property that night. The farm is about 30 miles from Chattanooga.

• 6:10 a.m. -- A Norfolk Southern train crew calls 911, reporting that the train has struck two people on the tracks crossing the property at the McDonald Farm.

Source: Hamilton County Sheriff's Office

POLL: Was the Hennen verdict fair?

Family members of the defense become emotional while in Judge Neil Thomas III's courtroom during the fifth day of a civil trial in which Barnes (mother of Hannah Barnes) is suing the Hennen Restaurant Group, alleging that her daughter's Aug. 22, 2011, death on train tracks can be attributed to her consuming alcohol at the restaurant where she worked hours before. Both Hannah Barnes and Michael Hennen died when a train struck them.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Michael Hennen, 27, and Hannah Barnes, 19

Photo by WRCB-TV Channel 3 /Times Free Press.

An eight-day trial spread over three weeks that involved dozens of witnesses and heart-wrenching testimony distilled into one question for jurors Wednesday.

"Do you find that Michael Hennen was at fault in serving alcohol to Hannah Barnes on the evening of Aug. 21 or the morning of Aug. 22, 2011?"

It took the jury 90 minutes to return with the answer.

No.

Attorneys for both sides wrangled with multiple experts over blood samples, video footage and missing video footage of Hennen, 27, and Barnes, 19, in the hours before their deaths. Family and friends on both sides testified, often in tears.

Jurors saw the final moments of Barnes and Hennen from the point of view of the 250-ton train that struck them at 5:50 a.m. on Aug. 22, 2011, near McDonald Farm.

Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge W. Neil Thomas III said the trial was the most emotionally difficult he has presided over in 17 years on the bench.

Lisa Barnes, Hannah Barnes' mother, and her attorneys, C. Mark Warren and John Mark Griffin, declined to comment after the verdict.

Barnes filed the $25 million lawsuit on July 26, 2012, against the Hennen Restaurant Group, McDonald Farm, Tim and Corinne Hennen and Norfolk Southern Railway.

The railway company settled out of court with Barnes. Details were not entered into the court record. McDonald Farms and Tim and Corinne Hennen were removed from the lawsuit either by dismissal or judge's order before the trial began.

One of the Hennens' two attorneys, Al Henry, told the media that he was pleased with the verdict and that the lawsuit and trial brought only heartache to both families.

But both sides were more pointed in their closing arguments Wednesday morning.

Warren characterized a "culture of drinking" at Hennen's Restaurant, where both of the victims worked. Michael Hennen, a former manager at the business, was the son of owner Tim Hennen.

"You can turn tragedy into a legacy when you speak up," Warren told the jury. "No more underage drinking in restaurants."

Hannah Barnes worked at the restaurant that night, and throughout the trial Warren and Griffin tried to prove to jurors that she had begun drinking there.

They pointed to video of the bar area that they said would have shown Michael Hennen serving drinks to Hannah Barnes, if only the tape had not been recorded over before investigators could retrieve it.

And they called toxicology experts to testify that Hannah Barnes' 0.07-blood alcohol level and Michael Hennen's 0.086-blood alcohol level showed they must have been drinking at the restaurant before they left, bound for McDonald Farm with a couple of stops along the way.

But Henry countered that there was no evidence Hannah Barnes drank at the restaurant. And if the jury found that she did, they must also consider that Hannah was an adult and responsible for her own decisions.

The legal drinking age in Tennessee is 21.

"Hannah knows the risk of being by a railroad track," Henry said. "You don't have to be 21 to know the risk."

Detailed descriptions of the injuries to both victims' bodies sent family members out of the courtroom on multiple days. At other times some sat crying quietly while medical examiners testified.

Lisa Barnes testified about how she learned of her daughter's death, the shock and disbelief she felt. Her ex-husband, Hannah's father, Phillip Barnes, also testified and said he didn't want to be part of the lawsuit and said the Hennen family had been supportive following the deaths.

Barnes can appeal the decision. She has 30 days to file such an appeal, according to clerk's officials.

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