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06/27/96 WILLIAM M. HANSON v. CONSOLIDATED RAIL

June 27, 1996

WILLIAM M. HANSON, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
CONSOLIDATED RAIL CORPORATION, A FOREIGN CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. 89 L 17107. Honorable Thomas E. Flanagan, Judge Presiding.

Released for Publication August 13, 1996.

The Honorable Justice Cahill delivered the opinion of the court: Theis and S.m. O'brien, JJ., concur.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cahill

JUSTICE CAHILL delivered the opinion of the court:

William Hanson filed a complaint under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) (45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq. (1988)), alleging that Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) negligently caused injuries to his hand and arm. The jury returned a verdict for Hanson in the amount of $507,500. Conrail appeals the denial of its post trial motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, in the alternative, a new trial. We affirm.

Hanson was injured while he was working for Pennsylvania Truck Lines as a terminal manager at a railroad yard in Chicago. Pennsylvania Truck Lines was a subsidiary of Conrail. Its employees loaded highway trailers onto flat railroad freight cars for Conrail. The trailers were then shipped to eastern destinations.

A machine called a "Le tourneau" was used to lift a trailer onto a flatcar. The operator of the Le tourneau first lifted a container and set it over the trailer. A "groundman" secured four corner locks on the trailer to the bottom of the container. The operator then lifted the container and trailer and set them onto the flatcar. The groundman then locked the trailer into place on the flatcar and unlocked the container from the trailer. The operator then removed the container from the trailer to complete the process.

Hanson supervised the loading of trailers on January 27, 1988. He was driving a truck around the railroad yard at 5 p.m. He saw an operator having trouble disengaging a container from a trailer which had been loaded and locked onto a flatcar. The Le tourneau was able to lift the container six inches from the trailer when it became apparent that one of the four corner locks was bound.

Frank Nimeth was operating the Le tourneau, and Rudolph Berry was working as the groundman.

Hanson testified at trial that he stopped driving and got out of the truck. He signalled with his hands to Berry and Nimeth "to stop the operation" and "stay in place." Hanson then walked to the far side of the flatcar. He inspected the east corner lock on the trailer and saw it was open. He signaled to Nimeth that he was going to move to the west. Hanson then climbed onto an adjoining flatcar. He put his left foot in the middle of the adjoining flatcar and his right foot on the coupler connecting the two flatcars. He balanced himself by holding the end of the trailer with his left hand. He stepped to the west, taking his right foot off the coupler, and saw that the container-trailer lock was open but that the container had not cleared the lock. He then stepped back with his right foot to place it on the coupler and lost his balance. To avoid falling from the flatcar, he grabbed the end of the trailer just as the container re-settled on it. His hand and arm were pinched between the container and the trailer.

Nimeth testified that he saw Hanson get out of the truck and climb on the flatcar. He did not see Hanson make hand signals. If he had, he would have stopped working. He did not know that Hanson was attempting to separate the container from the trailer. Nimeth explained that, at the time of the accident, he was resetting the container onto the trailer. He intended to then separate the Le tourneau from the container, back up, and realign the Le tourneau with the flatcar.

Hanson argued to the jury that Conrail negligently caused injury to his hand and arm because Conrail failed to properly light the work area and air the track to brake the train of flatcars. Conrail denied any negligence and argued that Hanson was contributorily negligent. The jury returned a verdict for Hanson in the amount of $725,000, reduced by 30% for Hanson's contributory negligence.

Conrail argues on appeal that the trial court erred when it denied its motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict because Hanson failed to show that the allegations of negligence caused his injury. Conrail argues that a railroad is not subject to absolute liability under the FELA, but that liability must arise from its negligence based on substantial evidence in the record. Gonet v. Chicago & North Western Transportation Co., 195 Ill. App. 3d 766, 774-75, 552 N.E.2d 1224, 142 Ill. Dec. 483 (1990).

A railroad may be liable under the Federal Employers' Liability Act for conduct substantially less than common law negligence. A plaintiff need only prove slight negligence of the defendant to prevail on the claim. 45 U.S.C. § 51 (1988); Pry v. Alton & Southern Railroad ...


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