A recent Illinois personal injury lawsuit evaluated the degree of duty a railroad owes to protect trespassers from becoming injured on its property. Dominic Choate v. Indiana Harbor Belt RR Co., et al., No. 1-10-0209 (June 2011), was filed after a 12 year-old boy required a leg amputation after falling from a moving freight train. A Cook County jury found the railroad negligence and awarded the boy $6.5 million for his injuries; an Illinois appellate court then affirmed the verdict after reviewing the case facts.
In July 2003, Dominic Choate was heading home from a friend’s house when he decided to take a shortcut that required him to cross some train tracks. As he approached the train tracks, a freight train was driving by at about 9 to 10 mph. Choate decided to climb a ladder on the side of one of the passing freight cars, but fell from the moving train. The train then ran over his left foot, causing a below the knee amputation as a result of the train accident.
Choate filed a lawsuit against Indiana Harbor Belt RR Co. (IHB), the railroad company that owned the right-of-way where Choate had attempted to board the train. The complaint alleged that IHB was aware that children were regularly crossing the train tracks at that location and failed to take steps to defer children from trespassing and crossing at that location. The plaintiff was critical of the railroad’s failure to warn children of the tracks’ danger and that it did not fence in its property or otherwise prevent children from trespassing.
The defense responded by stating that it did not have a duty to prevent Choate from trespassing and that he was old enough to be aware of the dangers of train tracks. While the jury did find Choate partly responsible for his own injury, it still found that 60% of the fault lay with IHB. It entered a $6.5 million verdict against the railroad company, which was then reduced to $3.9 million after allowing for Choate’s contributory negligence.