Court sides with railroad in medical examiner’s fight for video of a train death

Dr. Thomas Clark, Pierce County chief medical examiner, is shown March 4, 2016 in his office with a teaching microscope.
Dr. Thomas Clark, Pierce County chief medical examiner, is shown March 4, 2016 in his office with a teaching microscope.

A fight between Pierce County’s medical examiner and Burlington Northern Santa Fe over access to video of a pedestrian being struck by a freight train has been resolved in the railroad’s favor.

The state Supreme Court issued a ruling Thursday stating Dr. Thomas Clark has no right to a copy of the video. A jury might be able to get the video at some point, but not Clark, the high court ruled in a 9-0 decision.

In 2017, Clark tried to force BNSF to turn over video from an on-train camera that shows 50-year-old Ronnie Stirgus being hit and killed in Puyallup in February of that year.

Police said Stirgus appeared to slip or stumble as the train approached him on snowy tracks near Fifth Street Southeast.

Clark argued that he needs a copy of the footage to determine the manner of death — accident, suicide or undetermined.

BNSF officials offered to show the video to Clark anytime, but they declined to hand it over, citing privacy concerns.

Clark then told the Pierce County Superior Court on March 14, 2017 that he intended to invoke a seldom-used practice called a coroner’s inquest to determine the manner of Stirgus’ death.

An inquest would give Clark the power to subpoena the video.

Burlington Northern then filed a petition in court to keep Clark from enforcing his subpoena. The railroad’s petition argued that Clark’s call for an inquest was an “illegal ruse” to get the video.

Judge Edmund Murphy found in the railroad’s favor, and Clark asked the state Supreme Court to review the decision.

The high court said Thursday that Murphy had it right, and the justices used Clark’s own words against him to support their decision.

Clark’s memo calling for an inquest said: “Until further notice, however, Superior Court is not requested to provide persons to serve as a jury of inquest, nor to schedule a courtroom or related services, because my office is still gathering evidence concerning this matter.”

In its ruling, the Supreme Court said a coroner’s inquest begins when a medical examiner or coroner requests a jury. Clark’s memo shows he did the opposite, the high court ruled.

“In fact, Dr. Clark specifically told the Superior Court not to provide persons to serve as a jury of inquest. Because Dr. Clark did not request a jury, an inquest never began,” Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote for the court.

The high court also said that should Clark go ahead and ask for jurors, they’re the ones who can get the video, not him.

“Dr. Clark has made it clear that he intends to call an inquest jury and issue a new subpoena in this matter if this court affirms,” Fairhurst wrote. “In the interests of judicial economy, we explain that (state law) grants the power to subpoena this video but that the subpoena is returnable only to the inquest jury, not the coroner’s office.”

Alexis Krell covers local, state and federal court cases that affect Pierce County. She started covering courts in 2016. Before that she wrote about crime and breaking news for almost four years as The News Tribune’s night reporter.