The Illinois Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision overturning a $3.9 million jury award against three different railroad companies. The plaintiff was 12 years old when he was injured trying to jump onto a moving train. The Court said that a train in motion represents an obvious danger.
The Court, in a decision written by Justice Charles Freeman, found that lower courts should not have allowed the jury to determine the duty owed to the plaintiff by the defendants, and that the defendants were entitled to judgment notwithstanding the verdict.
“This determination of defendants’ duty is a question of law for the court,” Freeman wrote in the decision. “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 plaintiff is Dominic Choate, who was a resident of Chicago Ridge at the time of the incident. He filed a personal injury lawsuit against Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad Co., CSX Transportation, Inc. and Ohio Chicago Terminal Railroad Co., after losing his foot while trying to jump onto the train.
When Choate was 12 years old, he and five of his friends met in a parking lot where a freight train was passing by. Choate and another boy tried to jump onto the moving train. While the other friend only tried once, Choate kept trying. His hand slipped from the ladder and his left foot fell under the train wheels. His leg had to be amputated.
To get near the train, Choate had to make his way through a torn portion of a chain link fence. He argued that the defendants failed to adequately secure the area and failed to post warning signs, although the defendants alleged that there was a sign warning against trespassing.
In a motion for summary judgment filed before trial, the defendants asserted that they owed no legal duty to Choate because he was a trespasser, and because he should have known that leaping onto a moving train is an obvious danger.
The court allowed the jury to decide the issue of whether the defendants owed the plaintiff a legal duty. The jury found that Choate was owed a duty and that the defendants were liable, although Choate was 40 percent responsible for his injuries. Choate was awarded $3.9 million.
That verdict was affirmed by the appellate court, but the Illinois Supreme Court has now reversed it.
“A landowner has no duty to remedy a dangerous condition if it presents obvious risks that children generally of the plaintiff’s age would be expected to appreciate and avoid,” Freeman wrote in the decision.
Paul Greenberg is a Chicago personal injury lawyer and Chicago personal injury attorney with Briskman Briskman & Greenberg. To learn more call 1.877.595.4878 or visit https://briskmanandbriskman.com/.