Saying that a moving train presents an obvious danger, the Illinois Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a $3.9 million jury award against a trio of railroad companies.
In a unanimous decision delivered 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, who injured himself attempting to jump onto a moving train.
“This determination of defendants’ duty is a question of law for the court,” Freeman wrote, explaining that the defendants in this case were entitled to a judgment notwithstanding a verdict.
He added, “It has never been part of our law that a landowner may be liable to a trespasser who proceeds to wantonly expose himself to unmistakable danger in total disregard of a fully understood risk, simply for the thrill of the venture.”
The Supreme Court ruling stems from a personal injury suit Dominic Choate brought in Cook County against Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad Co., the Baltimore and Ohio Chicago Terminal Railroad Co. and CSX Transportation Inc.
When Choate was 12, he tried to impress his friends by jumping onto a moving train in Chicago Ridge and ended up having his foot run over by a train wheel. As a result of the 2003 incident, Choate had to have his amputated below the knee.
In order to get to the railroad tracks, Choate and his friends had to walk through a torn portion of a chain link fence and allegedly passed a no-trespassing sign that warned of danger.
Choate sued the defendants, claiming that they failed to adequately fence the area and prevent minor children from gaining access to their trains or railroad tracks.
The defendants moved for summary judgment, asserting that they did not owe Choate a legal duty because they trespassed and should have known the obvious danger associated with jumping onto a moving train.
The circuit court initially granted the defendants’ motion, but vacated the summary judgment on reconsideration to let the jury decide the issue.
The jury awarded Choate $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.
Pointing to the 1965 ruling in Kahn v. James Burton, the Supreme Court reversed the lower courts this week.
The court in Burton 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.
Freeman wrote that courts after Burton, including those in Cope v. Doe and Corcoran v. Village of Libertyville, further explained that 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 Engle, the court noted that 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.”
The court in La Salle ruled in favor of the minor plaintiff because 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 Engle and La Salle is inconsistent with Cope and Corcoran and that when it comes to negligence actions, courts must first decide whether the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff.
As such, the Supreme Court overruled Engle and La Salle, explicitly recognizing that “a moving train is an obvious danger that any child allowed at large should realize the risk of coming within the area made dangerous by 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.”
Evan Tager, an attorney at Mayer Brown in Washington D.C. represented the defendants. He deferred comment to a CSX Transportation spokeswoman, who could not immediately be reached.
Milo Lundblad, an attorney at Brunstin & Lundblad in Chicago, represented Choate. He did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
The case citation is Dominic Choate v. Indiana Harbor Belt Co., et al., 2012 IL 112948. The opinion can be found at state.il.us/court.