Illinois Appellate Court Affirms Railroad Owed Duty to Child Injured Climbing onto Train – Choate v. Indiana Harbor Belt R. Co.

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.

The defendant railroad then appealed the personal injury decision, arguing again that Choate was aware of the dangers associated with climbing aboard a moving train and that as a result it did not owe a duty to warn or protect him from the obvious danger. In its appeal the defense pointed to the fact that the jury found Choate partly responsible for his own accident as evidence that he was also aware of the actual danger.

In its analysis, the Illinois Appellate Court primarily relied on the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision in Kahn v. James Burton Co., 5 Ill.2d 614 (1955), similar cases were decided according to the “attractive nuisance doctrine,” under which landowners could be held liable for injuries to a child caused by a condition that attracted the child to the premises. Kahn rejected this attractive nuisance doctrine and instead applied the customary rules of ordinary negligence, except:

where the owner or person in possession knows, or should know, that young children habitually frequent the vicinity of a defective structure or dangerous agency existing on the land, which is likely to cause injury to them because they, by reason of their immaturity are incapable of appreciating the risk involved, and where the expense or inconvenience of remedying the condition is slight compared to the risk to the children . . .

So under the Kahn exception, if a landowner knows that young children are known to trespass on the property, then the landowner has a duty to either remedy the dangerous condition, or to protect those children from being injured by it. The definition of a “dangerous condition” was later clarified in Corcoran v. Village of Libertyville, 73 Ill.2d 316, 325 (1978) as “one which is likely to cause injury to the general class of children who, by reason of their immaturity, might be incapable of appreciating the risk involved.”
The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the jury verdict based on its holding that whether or not children the plaintiff’s age and experience would have foreseeably be unable to appreciate the risk of jumping aboard a moving freight train was a question of fact for the jury to decide. It further held that the plaintiff had submitted sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding that Choate did not fully understand the risk of his conduct and that its verdict on Choate’s contributory fault did not completely bar his claims against IHB following the Cook County train accident. Therefore, there was not enough evidence to warrant overturning the trial court’s verdict, thus it was left to stand.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Cook County train accident lawsuits for individuals and families for more than 35 years in and around Chicago, Cook County, and surrounding areas, including New Lenox, Oak Park, Blue Island, and Prospect Heights.

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