Supreme Court Summaries
Opinions filed September 20, 2012
Choate v. Indiana Harbor Belt R.R. Co., 2012 IL 112948
Appellate citation: 2011 IL App (1st) 100209.
JUSTICE FREEMAN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.
Chief Justice Kilbride and Justices Thomas, Garman, Karmeier, Burke, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.
This plaintiff was 12 years old and had finished sixth grade when, in the summer of 2003, his left foot was severed above the toes when he attempted to jump onto a freight train which was moving by the parking lot of an apartment building in Chicago Ridge. The track was partially fenced off and there was a sign warning of danger and prohibiting trespassing.
As a result of this injury, an amputation below the knee was performed. The railroad company which operated the train settled for $25,000, but the plaintiff sued three other railroad companies who are the defendants here and recovered $3.9 million after a Cook County jury trial. The jury had originally assessed $6.5 million in damages, but that amount was reduced by the earlier settlement and because the plaintiff was found to have been 40% negligent.
At trial, the defense had claimed that no duty was owed as a matter of law, but the trial judge found that the question of whether the danger of jumping onto a moving freight train was so obvious as to preclude any duty by the defendants was a question of fact for the jury. After the trial, the defendants, again claiming lack of duty, unsuccessfully sought a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The appellate court affirmed.
In this decision, the supreme court held that both the circuit and the appellate courts committed reversible error in viewing the defendants’ duty to the plaintiff as an issue of fact for the jury to determine. However, the reversal being ordered here is being entered without remand because, under Illinois law, a moving train is an obvious danger as to which any child old enough to be allowed at large should recognize the risk. The defendants never had a legal duty to the plaintiff trespasser in this situation.