Chicago area Metra worker Leonard Brzinski was denied recovery for injuries he suffered after falling into a sinkhole while working. Under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), a train company employee can bring suit for injuries suffered on the job due to the employer’s negligence.
Brzinski arrived at work in Orland Park, Illinois, to investigate an accident. He was walking along the service road that ran parallel to the railroad tracks for the purpose of taking photographs. While he was walking, the ground gave way and Mr. Brzinski stepped into an 18-inch sinkhole with his left foot and injured himself.
Brzinski filed suit against Metra seeking recovery for his injuries. The defendant, Metra, filed a motion for summary judgment stating (1) Leonard was not one of the employees statutorily allowed to recover under FELA and (2) that Metra had no actual or constructive notice of the sinkhole that caused the injury.
The trial court granted Metra’s motion on the second argument- that Leonard failed to establish that Metra was or should have been on notice of the sinkhole defect. Therefore Metra was not responsible for Brzinski’s injuries.
Brzinski appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court, who affirmed the decision of the trial court. The appeals court further stated that their decision was partly because of the consequences that would occur if they did side with the plaintiff despite his lack of proof. Namely, that every railroad would be liable for damages to an employee who was injured while working for them whether it was due to the railroad’s negligence or not. The court did not feel this was the intention of the FELA statute.
Furthermore, the employee’s burden under FELA is already “significantly lighter” than in typical common law negligence cases. So the burden of proof placed on the employee is already set very low. To further lower it would essentially “make the [railroad] employer the insurer of the safety of its employees”. However, under the FELA “the basis of [the railroad’s] liability is its negligence, not the fact that injuries occur”.
The Illinois appeals court held that plaintiff did not prove that Metra was aware of the sinkhole defect. Metra was and is responsible for providing a safe work place, part of which is conducting inspections and maintenance. But that responsibility only extends to a reasonable degree. In this case the court felt that unless Metra was aware that a sinkhole existed, or should have been aware, then they could not be held liable for any injuries resulting from the sinkhole.
The duty for proving that Metra should have been aware of the relevant sinkhole rested with Brzinski. In neither his original lawsuit or appeal was Brzinski able to show that the “reasonable” inspections Metra was responsible for conducting would have discovered the sinkhole. So if it was unreasonable to expect them to know about it, then the court found that it would also be unreasonable to hold them liable for it.
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