Illinois Supreme Court Voids 3.9 Million Jury Award; Dominic Choate v. Indiana Harbor Belt Co.

The Illinois Supreme Court has overturned a $3.9 million jury award against three railroad companies in a ruling that stated that a moving train presents an obvious danger.

In a unanimous decision by Justice Charles Freeman, the court found that the circuit and appellate courts committed reversible error when they let the jury determine the defendants’ duty to the plaintiff. In this case, the plaintiff injured himself while attempting to jump onto a moving train.

The ruling stemmed from a personal injury suit filed by D.C. in Cook County against Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad Co., the Baltimore and Ohio Chicago Terminal Railroad Co. and CSX Transportation Inc. In 2003, when the plaintiff was 12, he tried to impress his friends by jumping onto a moving train in Chicago Ridge. His foot was run over by a train wheel, and he had to have his leg amputated below the knee.

According to trial testimony, the plaintiff and his friends had to walk through a torn portion of a chain link fence to get to the train tracks. They also walked past a no-trespassing sign that warned of danger. The plaintiff claimed the defendants failed to adequately fence the area and prevent children from gaining access to their trains or railroad tracks.

Meanwhile, the defendants moved for summary judgment, asserting that they did not owe the plaintiff a legal duty because he trespassed along with his friends. Defense attorneys also said D.C. and his friends should have known that jumping onto a moving train was dangerous.

The circuit court initially granted the defendants’ motion, but vacated the summary judgment on reconsideration to let the jury decide the issue. A jury awarded D.C. $6.5 million, which it reduced to $3.9 million after determining he was 40 percent at fault.

The First District Appellate Court affirmed, spurring the defendants’ appeal to the Supreme Court.

But pointing to the 1965 ruling in Kahn v. James Burton, the Supreme Court reversed the lower courts. In that case, the court recognized that landowners don’t have a duty to maintain their premises for the safety of trespassers as long as they exercise reasonable care to remedy dangerous conditions and protect children from injury.

In his opinion, Freeman wrote that courts after Burton, including those in Cope v. Doe and Corcoran v. Village of Libertyville, explained landowners don’t have a duty to remedy dangerous conditions if they present an obvious risk that children would be expected to understand and avoid.

Instead of following Kahn and its progeny, Freeman wrote that the appellate court in this case relied on La Salle National Bank v. City of Chicago and Engel v. Chicago & North Western Transportation Co.

The courts in these two cases, Freeman wrote, affirmed jury verdicts in favor of minor plaintiffs.

In Engel, the court noted, while most children understand the risk associated with certain activities, such as playing in water or with fire, this policy determination “does not per se extend to train flipping cases.” And the court in La Salle ruled in favor of the minor plaintiff, saying the jury “made no specific finding that the plaintiff ‘appreciated the risk’ in jumping on a moving freight train.”

On behalf of the Supreme Court, Freeman noted that the reasoning in Engel and La Salle is inconsistent with Cope and Corcoran and that when it comes to negligence, courts must decide whether the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff.

So the Supreme Court overruled Engel and La Salle, saying that “a moving train is an obvious danger” and that any child allowed at large should realize the risk of coming within the area around it.

“In sum, because plaintiff was a trespasser, defendants owed him no duty of reasonable care, except to refrain from willfully and wantonly injuring him, which plaintiff does not allege,” Freeman wrote.

“It is always unfortunate when a child gets injured while playing,” he added, “but the responsibility for a child’s safety lies primarily with his parents, whose duty it is to see that the child does not endanger himself.”

The case is Dominic Choate v. Indiana Harbor Belt Co., et al., 2012 IL 112948.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handing Illinois train accident lawsuits for more than 36 years for individuals and families in and around Chicago, Cook County, and surrounding areas, including Park Forest, Calumet City, Elmwood Park, Stone Park, Northlake, and Harwood Heights, Ill.

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