Appeals court: Union Pacific owed no 'duty of care' to contractor, despite injuries in rail yard

By Shanice Harris | Jun 13, 2019

CHICAGO – An Illinois state appeals court says the employee of a contractor can't sue Union Pacific Railroad for injuries he suffered on a Union Pacific job site.

A three-justice panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court ruled plaintiff Eric Atlas failed to demonstrate Union Pacific owed him a "duty of care" at the time he was injured.

Justice Mathias Delort authored the May 24 opinion. Justices Maureen E. Connors and Sheldon A. Harris concurred in the ruling.

Atlas filed a suit against the railroad company citing one claim under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act  and one count of alleged common law negligence. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. 

Union Pacific owns and operates several railroad locations throughout the Chicago area. Union Pacific entered a contract with Mobile Rail Solutions Inc., which stated they would “service Union Pacific locomotives on an ‘as needed’ basis for a flat fee," according to the ruling. 

“MRS would service the locomotives by checking and adding cooling water, checking and adding engine lubrication oil, dumping and recharging locomotive toilets, cleaning retention bins, draining and disposing the contents of retention tanks, cleaning locomotive cabs and windows, supplying cabs with crew packs, and checking and adding tractive sand,” the ruling states. 

MRS would provide the service trucks and labor, while Union Pacific would provide the engine cooling water, drinking water, lubrication and sand, according to the ruling.

Atlas was hired by MRS and was paid $17 per hour, plus overtime. He was hired to service locomotives at facilities owned by Union Pacific and a competing railroad, CSX. One day at work, Atlas alleged he had to disconnect a drain pipe that was stuck. As he planted his feet and pulled hard to release the hose, he alleged he felt a sharp pain in his neck. Later that evening, Atlas alleged he cut his arm on a piece of fiberglass. The day after the incident, Atlas reported the cut, but not the drain pipe incident. He was taken to the hospital for the cut injury by his supervisor, the ruling states. 

Atlas blamed Union Pacific for the drain pipe incident. He stated that the “shiny or fresh metal” in the groove on the pipe was an indicator of its dysfunction. 

“He opined that Union Pacific failed to properly inspect and maintain the drain pipe to make sure that it was safe,” Delort wrote. “He also testified, however, that he never saw shiny or fresh metal in the groove of a toilet drain pipe. Additionally, he testified that he would expect a hose to properly disconnect from a drain pipe with shiny or fresh metal in the groove.”

Judge Allen Price Walker of the Cook County Circuit Court had granted Union Pacific’s motion and denied Atlas' motion. 

The circuit court judge had denied Atlas' motion for summary judgment because Walker ruled that Atlas had not presented enough evidence to prove his injury was foreseeable or was caused by Union Pacific’s negligence. He had also not proven that the “defect” was even noticeable by the drain pipe appearance. 

“To succeed on a claim of negligence, a plaintiff must first establish that the defendant owes him a duty of care,” Delort wrote. “Because no genuine issue of fact exists as to whether Atlas was an employee of Union Pacific for FELA purposes, and because Atlas failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to Union Pacific’s duty of care, we affirm."

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Illinois First District Appellate Court Union Pacific Railroad

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