Illinois Supreme Court Holds That Railroads Have No Duty of Care to Children Climbing on Moving Trains; Choate v. Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad Co.

In all negligence cases, duty is an element that must be proved to a preponderance of the evidence by the plaintiff. In Choate v. Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad Co., the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that freight trains pose an obvious risk of harm to child trespassers, but the railroad would owe no duty of care to children for injuries suffered while trying to climb onto a moving train car. Furthermore, the Supreme Court found that whether there is such a duty under those facts exists as a matter of law for a judge to decide, not the jury, the fact-finder.

The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision reversed the trial court’s holding that the 12-year-old boy who had finished sixth grade, should have been smart enough to know the risks of trying to climb aboard a moving freight train. Even though the boy fell trying to board the moving train severing his foot above the toes, the Supreme Court determined that the railroad did not owe a duty of care to the child as a matter of law.

The Supreme Court raised the Second Restatement of Torts and case law going back as far as 1897. In citing these older decisions, the Supreme Court stated that, “[o]ur appellate court held long ago that it was not the duty of a railroad to keep watch and warn boys not to jump onto its cars because jumping from the ground upon a moving freight train is dangerous, and all men and ordinarily intelligent boys know it to be so.”

The Illinois Supreme Court’s decision reversed the jury finding in favor of the boy for $3.875 million. The issue was whether the danger was open and obvious as a matter of law.

Justice Charles Freeman wrote, “[T]his court made it clear [in a 1995 tort-law decision] that the existence of a duty is a question of law, which must be resolved by the court. In the case at bar, the circuit court should have considered in the first instance the obviousness of the danger of moving trains as it relates to the foreseeable risk of harm to plaintiff.”

In reaching this decision in Choate, the Supreme Court reviewed common-law decisions involving tort-liability cases. The court also discussed rules of premises liability and trespassing on property. The court distinguished the child-trespasser exception to the general rule about the duty of the landowner as to the immaturity of a child in making reasonable decisions about safety. The court further looked at the obviousness of the risk.

In conclusion, the Supreme Court held that it was reversible error for the trial court and the appellate court to have allowed and affirm the jury’s role in determining whether the railroad defendants should have erected some fencing that would have prevented the young boy’s injuries from happening.

Justice Freeman wrote that duty is a question of law to be determined by the court, not the jury. Prior to issuing the decision, the Supreme Court allowed the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association leave to file an amicus curiae brief in support of plaintiff. The Association of American Railroads, Chicago Transit Authority and Metra all filed amicus curiae briefs on behalf of the defendants.

Choate v. Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad Co., et al., 2012 IL 112948.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling injury cases in construction cases, nursing home abuse cases, medical negligence, birth injury and automobile/truck cases for more than 36 years, in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Rosemont, Oak Lawn, Chicago (Roscoe Village), Naperville, Calumet Park, Crete, Park Ridge, Bolingbrook and Chicago (Rogers Park), Illinois.

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