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Union Pacific prevails at Supreme Court in St. Clair County FELA case

By Record News | Feb 20, 2017

SPRINGFIELD – Union Pacific Railroad, which won a jury verdict in an employee’s injury trial but lost it at the Fifth District appellate court, regained its victory at the Illinois Supreme Court on Feb. 17.

The Justices ruled that Union Pacific properly introduced evidence identifying a third party as the sole cause of an injury that Christopher Wardwell sustained.

They found no basis for disturbing the jury’s determination that Union Pacific was not a cause of his injury.

Wardwell sought damages under the Federal Employees Liability Act, or FELA, which attaches liability to a railroad if its negligence played any part in an injury.

Justice Mary Ann Burke wrote, “The jury cannot make a factual determination regarding whether the defendant railroad was at least in part a cause of the accident, as FELA requires, if it is not allowed to consider all of the circumstances surrounding the accident, including whether another party’s negligent conduct was the only negligent conduct that caused the accident.”

Wardwell worked for Union Pacific as switchman, brakeman and conductor.

Before dawn on Aug. 9, 2008, he and another employee rode in a transportation contractor’s van through the interchange of Interstate 255 and Illinois Route 3.

A vehicle struck the van from behind, injuring Wardwell’s back.

Union Pacific later employed him as a security guard with much lower pay.

The driver of the other vehicle, Erin Behnken, settled Wardwell’s claim against her.

In 2013, St. Clair County Circuit Judge Vincent Lopinot brought the case against Union Pacific to trial.

Union Pacific stipulated that the van driver, Regeania Goodwin, was its agent.

Goodwin testified that as she drove in the left lane, she looked for vehicles in the right lane.

She said she waited for a truck to pass, activated her turn signal, checked her side mirror, and moved into the right lane. She said she didn’t look over her shoulder to check her blind spot as she learned in training, and that she made a judgment call about it.

She said she drove in the right lane for 20 seconds prior to the collision.

Union Pacific counsel asked plaintiff’s expert Bruno Schmidt if all three occupants of the van said Behnken was the sole cause of the accident.

Plaintiff counsel Mark Dupont objected, and Lopinot overruled him.

Schmidt said he didn’t recall the passengers saying Goodwin did anything wrong.

Behnken testified that she was drunk, she was arrested at the scene, and she was found intoxicated two hours later.

She said she didn’t see the van and that she fell asleep or blacked out.

She said she didn’t know if her headlights were on.

Wardwell testified that Goodwin drove in the right lane for two seconds.

He said there was no defect in the van that contributed to his injury.

He said Goodwin was alert and attentive, violated no rules of the road, and obeyed the speed limit.

Lopinot told jurors, “More than one person may be to blame for causing an injury.”

He told them that if Union Pacific’s negligence was a cause of injury in whole or in part, it was not a defense that a third person may also have been to blame.

“However, if you decide that the sole cause of the injury to the plaintiff was the conduct of some person other than the defendant, then your verdict should be for the defendant,” he said.

Jurors returned a verdict or Union Pacific, and Wardwell moved for a new trial.

Lopinot denied the motion in 2014, and Wardwell appealed.

In January 2016, Fifth District Justices Richard Goldenhersh and Bruce Stewart reversed Lopinot.

They found that Wardwell presented a significant amount of evidence of Union Pacific’s negligence.

Dissenting Justice Moore wrote that Lopinot instructed jurors properly and that evidence was sufficient to sustain the verdict.

Moore wrote that he believed the jury concluded that, “any purported negligence on the part of the van driver regarding the manner in which she changed lanes could not have been a cause, even in part, of the accident.”

He wrote that Wardwell told police and Union Pacific that a drunk driver caused the accident.

He further wrote that the conflict over the timing of the lane change was the type of conflict the jury was empaneled to resolve. He wrote that excluding evidence that a third party was the sole cause of an injury would eviscerate the causation standard in FELA.

Union Pacific appealed to the Supreme Court, where all seven Justices agreed that Lopinot and the jury made no mistake.

Burke quoted a decision from 2011 that, “Injuries have countless causes, and not all should give rise to legal liability.”

She quoted a 1984 textbook that, “Because of convenience, of public policy, of a rough sense of justice, the law arbitrarily declines to trace a series of events beyond a certain point.”

“To hold that the jury could not even consider the role that Behnken’s negligent conduct played in the accident would render the events surrounding the accident incomprehensible to the jury and, as Justice Moore noted in dissent below, would eviscerate the standard in FELA that the railroad be a cause, at least in part, of the accident.”

Thomas Jones and Harlan Harla, both of Thompson Coburn in Belleville, represented Union Pacific.

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Illinois Supreme Court Thompson Coburn LLP