The Illinois Supreme Court has derailed a Downstate
appellate ruling, saying a railroad employee, who sued his employer under a
federal liability law for injuries suffered in an accident, cannot collect
damages from the railroad if a third party was completely at fault.
The Feb. 17 opinion was penned by Justice Anne Burke, with
concurrence from Justices Mary Jane Theis, Robert Thomas, Rita Garman, Charles
Freeman, Lloyd Karmeier and special concurrence from Thomas Kilbride.
The decision affirmed a judgment by a St. Clair County
judge, which had been overturned by the Illinois Fifth District Appellate Court
in January 2016. The case involves the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, which
is the means by which railroad employees can sue their employers for injuries.
Christopher Wardwell was employed by Union Pacific Railroad.
On Aug. 9, 2008, Wardwell was a passenger in a van being driven by a woman,
hired as a driver by Union Pacific, to a work site. The van was rear-ended by
another vehicle on Route 3 near St. Louis, causing “severe back injury” to
Wardwell. The other driver was drunken, according to court papers.
Wardwell sued the intoxicated driver and reached a
settlement. Wardwell also brought suit against Union Pacific under FELA,
alleging the van driver, as the railroad’s agent, contributed to the collision
by negligently cutting in front of the other vehicle. The railroad countered
the drunken driver was solely to blame. The matter went to trial in 2013, with
the jury deciding in Union Pacific’s favor.
Wardwell asked for a new trial, contending Union Pacific
should not have been allowed to use a “sole-cause defense,” because such a
defense was not proper in a FELA action. The circuit court judge denied the new
trial request, leading Wardwell to appeal.
The appellate court, in a 2-1 ruling, supported Wardwell and
overturned the circuit court decision. Union Pacific then took the case to the
Illinois Supreme Court.
Justice Burke pointed out FELA required Wardwell to prove
his injuries were caused “in whole or in part” by the railroad, and if the
railroad was even barely at fault, the railroad had to pay full damages. In
such a scenario, the railroad could then seek contribution from the drunken
driver. However, Burke noted the jury found Union Pacific wasn’t at fault at
“Under FELA, the employee cannot recover unless the railroad
was a cause, at least in part, of the plaintiff’s injuries,” Burke observed.
The state high court threw out the appellate ruling and
reinstated the circuit court decision.
In an aside to the state Supreme Court’s opinion, Justice
Kilbride noted the instruction the judge gave the Wardwell jury, in regard to
FELA, was satisfactory. However, he suggested Illinois courts follow the
example of federal and most state courts, which provide the more specific Rogers form of FELA instruction that
stresses the “low threshold” for liability.
The Rogers instruction was the focus of the 1957 U.S.
Supreme Court ruling in
. The nation’s high court has recommended the
“The causation issue is critical in FELA cases,” Kilbride
said. “In contrast to the instruction given by the circuit court, the Rogers instruction emphasizes that
plaintiff may recover if the railroad’s negligence played any part, even the
slightest, in bringing about the injury.”
Wardwell was represented by attorney Mark DuPont, of Big
Fork, Mt. Union Pacific was defended by the firm of Thompson Coburn, of