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First District affirms ruling in favor of railroad company in negligence suit

By Jonathan Bilyk | Sep 4, 2013

A man who lost most of one of his legs when he attempted to jump from a moving freight train as a child more than a decade ago did not have enough evidence to proceed with a trial on his negligence claims against a railroad company, an appeals panel ruled.

In an unpublished order filed Aug. 27, a panel of the First District Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the decision of Cook County Circuit Judge Kathy M. Flanagan, who had ruled in favor of Union Pacific Railroad and against plaintiff Antonio Brown.

Justice Patrick Quinn delivered the court's order. Justices Maureen Connors and James Fitzgerald Smith concurred.

The case stems from an incident that occurred on Aug. 20, 2000.

On that date, Brown, then a 10-year-old boy, was playing along railroad tracks. At some point that day, he ran between two moving freight trains, jumped and grasped a ladder at the end of one of the rail cars.

He hoisted himself onto the train car, and proceeded forward along the moving car to its front, coming to stand on the coupler joint, where the car was joined to the train.

At that point, the appellate court order notes, Brown attempted to jump from the coupler, but the laces of his right shoe became tangled in the coupler joint. During his attempt to jump, his right leg was amputated above the knee by the train car’s wheels.

Almost 10 years later, on March 29, 2010, Brown filed suit against Union Pacific.

In his arguments, Brown asserted that the railroad company was negligent because it did not do enough to prevent children and others from trespassing on its property and to prevent children like him from playing on its train cars.

Specifically, Brown focused on a “well-worn footpath” which was used by local residents - adults and children, alike - as an informal pedestrian railroad crossing.

He said Union Pacific should have fenced off the path and installed signs warning of the dangers presented by the railroad tracks and trains in operation there in an attempt to dissuade pedestrians from crossing the tracks there.

Brown also asserted that Union Pacific train crews should have done more to look for children playing around the trains before putting the trains into motion.

Union Pacific responded by noting that Brown never established which railroad was actually operating the trains on its railroad tracks.

And the company said it did not bear liability in the case because it did not have “a duty of care” for Brown, as, at the time of the accident, he was clearly engaged in a behavior that even a child would recognize as inherently dangerous.

“In other words, a reasonable 10-year-old allowed to go out unsupervised would have seen the moving freight train and appreciated the serious risk of trying to hop on it and jump from it,” the appellate court order states, summarizing Union Pacific’s argument.

At the circuit court level, Flanagan agreed, and in June 2012, granted the railroad company’s request for summary judgment. The ruling essentially established that Brown did not have enough evidence to have a realistic chance of winning if case went to trial.

Brown appealed that decision about a month later.

In its order upholding Flanagan's decision, the appeals panel noted that railroad companies could bear liability in cases in which people are injured by their trains, even while trespassing.

But, in this case, the appellate court determined that Brown could not prove the railroad knew of the “well-worn path” used to cross the tracks by those trespassing.

Further, Quinn wrote for the panel, Brown’s injuries, while “unfortunate,” were not the result of the “well-worn path” or Union Pacific’s apparent inaction at stopping people from trespassing on it.

Quinn explained in the order that Brown “was not injured because he trespassed onto defendant’s property and used a well-worn path to cross the railroad tracks," but “was injured because he hopped on and played on and jumped from a moving freight train.”

“It would be impossible for any railroad company to render a moving freight train ‘injury-proof’ under those conditions,” Quinn wrote for the court.

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