Wisconsin Central RR blocked by FELA from countersuing employees it blames for train accident: Appeals panel

By John Sammon | Dec 28, 2018

CHICAGO –  A railroad company should not be allowed to countersue two workers who it blames for a train-on-train collision, because such a countersuit would serve to interfere with those workers' rights to sue the railroad for their injuries, a state appeals court has ruled.

On Dec. 17, a panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court, in a 2-1 decision, backed a Cook County judge's decision to shut down the property damage counterclaim brought by Wisconsin Central railroad against two employees who are suing the railroad for personal injuries sustained in an accident.

“In our judgment, prohibiting railways from interposing counterclaims for property damage in response to an employee’s personal injury suit is the correct interpretation of sections 55 and 60 of the FELA (Federal Employer’s Liability Act),” tthe majority opinion stated.  

Plaintiffs Melvin Ammons and Darin Riley filed lawsuits against Wisconsin Central. Riley was a locomotive engineer and Ammons the conductor when the train they were operating struck another train that was stopped on the same track.

The suits asserted the railway company was negligent and violated rules or regulations that led to the pair being injured. Both lawsuits were consolidated into one.

Attorneys for Wisconsin Central responded by denying liability, and filed a counterclaim against the employees for property damage to the train and for contributing to each other's injuries, the opinion states.

The company alleged the pair had violated rules and operating practices, and failed to follow speed limits or apply emergency brakes before the collision, causing significant property damage.

The plaintiffs filed a motion to dismiss the counterclaim, arguing that such claims are prohibited under FELA rules. 

The plaintiffs also argued the counterclaim was an attempt by the rail company to dissuade injured workers from asserting FELA claims and from providing information about the accident.

Cook County Circuit Judge John H. Ehrlich dismissed the rail company’s counterclaim and the defendant appealed.

In their decision on appeal, the two justices in the majority noted FELA was enacted, in part, as a response to the special needs of railroad workers who were daily exposed to the risks inherent in railroad work and were helpless to adequately provide for their own safety.

In another similar case, Cavanaugh v. Western Maryland Railway Co., the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana found nothing in FELA foreclosed the railway’s right to seek redress for property damage caused by a negligent employee. However, the majority on the Illinois First District court said they believed a dissenting judge in the decision made a compelling argument that language in FELA made it clear Congress intended to prohibit counterclaims because they would unfairly coerce employees from pursuing FELA actions.

Wisconsin Central argued the court was obligated to follow Cavanaugh "on the issue because they are federal interpretations of federal law that are 'controlling," the opinion states. The First District majority disagreed.

“...We are only bound by decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and the Illinois Supreme Court, not by lower federal courts,” the opinion stated.

Justices reasoned property costs in a train accident would be higher than the personal injury cost suffered by the employee.

“The nullification of the personal injury claim would obtain in such cases even where the injured employee proved that negligence on the part of the railway caused his injury,” the opinion said.

The court determined this would allow a railway to do by tort what Congress forbade them to do by contract, and would become a device for a carrier to exempt itself from liability in a personal injury action.

“The board remedial endeavors of the FELA demands that a plaintiff’s personal injury claim should not be subject to easy defeat,” the majority opinion said.

Justice John C. Griffin delivered the judgment with Justice Mary L. Mikva concurring. Justice Daniel J. Pierce dissented.

Pierce said his colleagues on the panel erred in brushing aside the legal precedents presented by the railroad to back their position.

"In my view, those are the better-reasoned decisions, and I would follow those cases in holding that a railroad’s counterclaim for property damages is not a 'device' used to 'exempt' a railroad from 'liability' under the FELA," Pierce wrote. "To conclude otherwise ignores that defendant’s counterclaim does not seek to exempt defendant from liability for plaintiffs’ alleged injuries. 

"Defendant’s counterclaim for property damages does not seek to free or release defendant from any duty or liability to plaintiffs for their personal injuries."

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Circuit Court of Cook County Illinois First District Appellate Court Wisconsin Central

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