Six years after tragic death of Marfa teen struck by train, appeals court says Union Pacific not at fault

“I am thankful for everyone that was there for my son in life and throughout the court proceedings. His family and friends in Marfa, Texas, were a great support throughout one of the hardest times for my family."

EL PASO — An appeals court in El Paso last week ruled that Union Pacific is not legally liable for the tragic death of a Marfa teenager, who in 2016 was struck and killed by an oncoming train. The ruling brings an end to a yearslong crusade by the child’s grieving mother to hold the railroad company accountable for what she believes was negligence on its part.

When 16-year-old Jason Molinar was struck from behind and killed by a Union Pacific train in Marfa while walking on the tracks with headphones on, his mother, Rosaura Arreola, sued the company, alleging train operators failed to properly notify Molinar of the approaching train or to slow the train in a timely manner in order to prevent his death. 

A 2019 trial saw a jury find Molinar 90% at fault for his own death and Union Pacific only 10% at fault. The court entered a take-nothing judgment in the railroad company’s favor, and Arreola was awarded no monetary damages. Arreola then appealed the court’s decision on a number of grounds including insufficient evidence, errors in evidentiary rulings, and improper jury counseling which should have instructed the jurors to judge Molinar’s negligence as a 16-year-old rather than an adult. 

Now, the Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso has affirmed the earlier trial court’s judgment, meaning the case is finalized unless Arreola chooses to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. 

The 2019 trial proceedings, which took place in El Paso County Court, detailed how Molinar was walking to Dairy Queen, holding his iPad with headphones on, when the train approached and struck him from behind. The train conductor at the time, Herbert Diaz, and engineer, Bert Fredrick Harkness, defendants in the suit, testified that they began blowing the train’s horn to alert Molinar to move away from the tracks as soon as they recognized there was a person up ahead. 

When they realized he wasn’t responding to the horn, they applied the emergency brakes, but it was too late, and Molinar was impacted five seconds later. In the suit, Arreola argued that Union Pacific failed to adequately train its employees as to how to respond to a person on the tracks. 

According to court documents, the train was carrying hazardous materials, traveling at a lawful speed and routinely blowing its horn at various crossings through town. Train conductors testified that at the time they thought Molinar would turn around when he heard the train horn and that they were concerned about a possible derailment caused by an abrupt stop, mainly because the train was carrying cargo that would have endangered the surrounding community. 

“When the train crew spotted Molinar on the tracks, they could not see that he was wearing headphones, and they were therefore justified in assuming that he was in control of his faculties and would respond to the warning being given by the train’s horn,” claim court documents

But during the trial, Arreola argued for further scrutiny of the railroad company’s equipment and procedures involved in the accident, including the train horn and binoculars utilized by crew members. A video presented at the trial included an audio which captured the sound of the horn blowing before and after the accident, according to court documents. Ultimately, both courts rejected Arreola’s claims — a result the mother found disappointing.

When reached for comment on the appeals court’s ruling, Arreola said that the loss of her son continues to be a daily source of pain, and she was saddened by how court proceedings were handled, but grateful for those who remained close to her throughout the process. 

“I am thankful for everyone that was there for my son in life and throughout the court proceedings. His family and friends in Marfa, Texas, were a great support throughout one of the hardest times for my family,” said Arreola. 

“I am thankful to the Law Firm that fought for my son’s honor in court and the family that stood by our side through it all,” she added. 

She said her son’s favorite place to visit was the Presidio County Courthouse, where he liked to sit and draw, soaking in his surroundings. “Many afternoons he would call me while he sat on a bench outside the courthouse, and shared how happy he was enjoying the simplicity of life in Marfa,” said Arreola. 

Lawyers representing Union Pacific Railroad in this case did not respond to requests for comment by press time.