KARE: Legal loophole shields negligent light-rail operator

In mixing light-rail trains with vehicular and pedestrian traffic, transit planners and lawmakers forgot to make a change in the law that is preventing a light-rail train operator from being charged in the death of a driver, KARE 11 reports in an investigation.

Abdellatif El Maarouf blew through stop signals and slammed his westbound Green Line train into a car crossing the intersection at Eustis and University, killing the driver and badly injuring a passenger.

“He ignored a stop signal, two stop signals that you could see,” said Peter Westlake, the brother of Nic Westlake, who died in the collision. “He ignored parallel traffic, he ignored active cross traffic and entered into that intersection.”

But he can’t be charged under Minnesota traffic laws because under the state’s law, trains aren’t motor vehicles, KARE says.

It obtained a memo from the Ramsey County Attorney that said because El Maarouf was not speeding, on his phone, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, he cannot be charged with felony gross negligence.

His memo declining prosecution reads: “In the opinion of this office, the investigation clearly establishes that Mr El Maarouf operated a light rail train in an unsafe manner which was responsible for the collision with the motor vehicle on July 15, 2017.” The memo says the train operator “disobeyed the LRT traffic signal’s horizontal line.”

However, the prosecutor wrote, “In the Traffic Code, the definition of “vehicle” specifically excludes a rail train.”

The memo continued: “Thus there can be no criminal charges in this case for any violation of the Traffic Code because it does not apply to the operation of a rail train.”

A lawmaker is promising to close the loophole.

The train operator was fired after the crash but retained his job when the union representing the Metro Transit workers appealed the termination. He is no longer allowed to drive the trains, however.