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Magna Trust Co. v. Illinois Central Railroad Co.

April 18, 2000

MAGNA TRUST COMPANY, ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF JAMES C. JONES, DECEASED,
PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE, V.
ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD COMPANY,
DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Pulaski County. No. 96-L-8 Honorable George M. Oros, Judge, presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Maag

Plaintiff, Magna Trust Company, administrator for the estate of James (Rusty) C. Jones, filed a wrongful death complaint against defendant, Illinois Central Railroad Co. (Illinois Central), alleging a violation of the Safety Appliance Act (49 U.S.C. §20301 et. seq. (1994)). Rusty Jones, an employee of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), suffered fatal injuries when he was crushed between two rail cars while attempting to adjust a coupler on one of the cars on November 23, 1994. The rail cars were owned by Illinois Central. In the complaint, plaintiff alleged that Illinois Central violated the Safety Appliance Act by allowing one of its freight cars to be used in interstate commerce even though the coupler was missing a coupling pin and that this violation was a proximate cause of Rusty Jones's death. The jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff and awarded $1.8 million in damages. Illinois Central has raised several issues on appeal. Because a number of the issues turn on the nature of the case, we begin with that issue.

I. THE NATURE OF THE CAUSE OF ACTION

A. Non-railroad Employees and the Safety Appliance Act

Illinois Central argues that plaintiff cannot maintain an independent cause of action under state law premised solely on a violation of the Safety Appliance Act. In support of its argument, Illinois Central states that the Safety Appliance Act itself provides no independent federal cause of action, and it cites Crane v. Cedar Rapids & Iowa City Ry. Co., 395 U.S. 164, 23 L. Ed. 2d 176, 89 S. Ct. 1706 (1969), and then refers us to decisions from courts outside of Illinois that hold that a non-employee cannot base a state-law claim solely on an alleged violation of the Safety Appliance Act. See Keizor v. Sand Springs Ry. Co., 861 P.2d 326 (Okla. App. 1993); Moses v. Union Pacific R.R., 64 F.3d 413 (8th Cir. 1995). Illinois Central urges us to follow the Keizor decision and to find that the establishment of an independent cause of action and the imposition of absolute liability for a violation of the Safety Appliance Act is improper as a matter of law. Because this issue involves a question of law, our standard of review is de novo. See Athens v. Harris Trust & Savings Bank, 297 Ill. App. 3d 1055, 1060, 697 N.E.2d 909, 913 (1998).

The Safety Appliance Act does not create a cause of action for either railroad employees or nonemployees who are injured as a result of a railroad's violation of the act. See Crane, 395 U.S. 164, 23 L. Ed. 2d 176, 89 S. Ct. 1706. But Congress did provide a federal cause of action for railroad employees in the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) (45 U.S.C. §51 et seq. (1988)). The FELA "embraces claims of an employee based on violations of the Safety Appliance Act." Crane, 395 U.S. at 166, 23 L. Ed. 2d 176, 89 S. Ct. at 1708. Because the FELA is available only to railroad employees, nonemployees who are injured as a result of violations of the Safety Appliance Act must look to a common law action in tort and file a state cause of action. See Crane, 395 U.S. at 166, 23 L. Ed. 2d 176, 89 S. Ct. at 1708.

Therefore, we must look to our own state's common law to determine whether a plaintiff may file a cause of action based upon a violation of the Safety Appliance Act. The Illinois Supreme Court faced this issue in a case where a railroad passenger, injured when a coupler broke, brought an action in circuit court and alleged that the defendant railroad had violated the Safety Appliance Act and was absolutely liable for his injuries. See Boyer v. Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Ry. Co., 38 Ill. 2d 31, 230 N.E.2d 173 (1967). After reviewing interpretations given to the act in numerous federal decisions, our supreme court concluded: "The Federal Safety Appliance Act is as much a part of the law and policy of the States as are their own laws enacted by the State legislatures." Boyer, 38 Ill. 2d at 36, 230 N.E.2d at 177. In Boyer, the court held, "[I]t is apparent that a breach of the Safety Appliance Act does give rise to a civil cause of action which is separate from any cause of action based on negligence and that absolute liability for such breach is imposed on the violator." Boyer, 38 Ill. 2d at 35-36, 230 N.E.2d at 176. To base a cause of action on a breach of the Safety Appliance Act, it must appear that the plaintiff was within the class of persons the statute was intended to protect and that the injury was the type of risk covered. See Boyer, 38 Ill. 2d at 37, 230 N.E.2d at 177.

In its argument, Illinois Central urges us to follow the holding in Keizor v. Sand Spring Ry. Co., 861 P.2d 326 (Okla. App. 1993). There, the Oklahoma Court of Appeals, citing the Crane decision, stated that since the Safety Appliance Act creates neither an express nor an implied cause of action for nonemployees, a non-employee's action lies, if at all, in a common law action in negligence. Keizor, 861 P.2d at 330.

After reviewing the Keizor decision, we decline to follow it. Though the Keizor court dutifully recited the rules announced in Crane, it proceeded to ignore those rules in its analysis. The Keizor court correctly cited Crane for the proposition that any action for a violation of the Safety Appliance Act resulting in injury to a non-employee must arise under the common law and the injured party "must look to state law *** for remedy." (Emphasis added.) Keizor, 861 P.2d at 329. Then, in a leap of legal logic, unsupported by authority or explanation, the Keizor court said that because the United States Supreme Court, in the 1969 Crane decision, highlighted the absence of a federal cause of action under the Safety Appliance Act for nonemployees and because Congress, in its 1988 amendments to the Safety Appliance Act, remained absolutely silent about creating any private causes of action in anyone except railroad employees, "it is clear *** that Congress intended to deny private causes of action to non[]employees of the railroad." Keizor, 861 P. 2d at 330. Why? Under what rule of statutory construction? Without any discussion of this matter, the Keizor court concluded in that single clause that it could derive and declare the intentions of Congress. The statement is mere conjecture (or perhaps a statement of desire) and is devoid of legal support.

We respectfully disagree with the conclusion of our colleagues on the Oklahoma Court of Appeals. Upon our review of the 1988 amendments to the Safety Appliance Act, we found no substantive changes to provisions of the Safety Appliance Act that are relevant to this discussion. In 1994, Congress revised and codified the subject matter covered by the Safety Appliance Act (formerly 45 U.S.C. §1 et seq. (1988)) into Title 49, Transportation (49 U.S.C. §20101 et seq. (1994)). The legislative history states that this was a codification bill, enacting revisions without making changes in substance or impairing the precedent of earlier judicial decisions. H.R. Rep. No. 103-180 (1993), reprinted in 1994 U.S.C.C.A.N. 818 ("[T] his bill makes no substantive change in the law. It is sometimes feared that mere changes in terminology and style will result in changes in substance or impair the precedent value of earlier judicial decisions and other interpretations. *** In a codification law, however, the court upholds the contrary presumption: the law is intended to remain substantively unchanged").

Although Congress certainly could have, it declined to make substantive amendments. Since Congress is presumed to know the judicial interpretation given a statute, this decision by Congress evidences an intent to maintain the interpretation given by the United States Supreme Court in Crane. See generally Lorillard v. Pons, 434 U.S. 575, 55 L. Ed. 2d 40, 98 S. Ct. 866 (1978); People v. Agnew, 105 Ill. 2d 275, 279- 80, 473 N.E.2d 1319, 1322 (1985). This is a principle of statutory construction, referred to as "legislative acquiescence" in some jurisdictions and "legislative reenactment" in others. Considering this principle of statutory construction together with the legislative history, it is clear that the Crane interpretation stands as the correct statement of law. Thus, railroad employees have a cause of action premised on violations of the Safety Appliance Act, pursuant to FELA, and non-railroad employees have a cause of action premised on violations of the Safety Appliance Act under a state's common law. See Crane, 395 U.S. at 166, 23 L. Ed. 2d 176, 89 S. Ct. 1706; Boyer, 38 Ill. 2d at 36, 230 N.E.2d at 177.

Illinois Central's reliance on Moses v. Union Pacific R.R., 64 F.3d 413 (8th Cir. 1995), is misplaced. In Moses, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that in a state common law tort action, a violation of the federal Safety Appliance Act may be offered as evidence of negligence. Moses, 64 F.3d at 417. We note that the Eighth Circuit was applying the state law of Kansas, and its holding must be considered in that context. States differ in their approaches to the breach of a criminal or safety statute. In some states, the breach constitutes "negligence per se." In others, it is "evidence of negligence" or "prima facie evidence of negligence." O'Donnell v. Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Ry. Co., 338 U.S. 384, 390, 94 L. Ed. 187, 70 S. Ct. 200, 204 (1949). Further confusion arises because judicial interpretation of these phrases varies from state to state. In Moses, the Eighth Circuit simply applied the rule set forth in Crane and required a non-employee to "look for his remedy to a common law action in tort" under state law. Crane, 395 U.S. at 166, 23 L. Ed. 2d 176, 89 S. Ct. 1706. We have no quarrel with the application of Kansas law under the facts of that case. But borrowing a line from Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, "We're not in Kansas anymore." We consider and apply the law of the State of Illinois.

In Illinois, a violation of a statute or ordinance designed to protect human life is prima facie evidence of negligence. See Kalata v. Anheuser-Busch Cos., 144 Ill. 2d 425, 434, 581 N.E.2d 656, 661 (1991). Since the violation is only prima facie evidence of negligence, a defendant may prevail by showing that he acted reasonably under the circumstances. A violation of a safety statute does not constitute negligence per se, i.e. strict liability, unless the legislature clearly intends to impose strict liability. See Abbasi ex rel. Abbasi v. Paraskevoulakos, 187 Ill. 2d 386, 395, 718 N.E.2d 181, 185 (1999). Strict liability prevents a defendant who has violated the act from avoiding liability by showing that he exercised due care under the circumstances. It places the entire responsibility for injury upon the defendant who violates the act. See Barthel v. Illinois Central Gulf R.R. Co., 74 Ill. 2d 213, 384 N.E.2d 323, 327 (1978). Strict liability statutes are purposefully enacted to protect a certain class of persons against their own inability to protect themselves. See Restatement (Second) of Torts, §483, Comment c (1965). For example, Illinois courts have found the legislative intent to impose strict liability in the Child Labor Law (820 ILCS 205/1 et seq. (West 1992)) and the now- repealed Structural Work Act (740 ILCS 150/1 et seq. (West 1992)).

In 1893, Congress made it unlawful for a railroad company to use any car that is not equipped with properly functioning automatic couplers. In enacting the Safety Appliance Act, Congress intended to secure the safe operation of interstate trains by imposing an absolute duty on railroads to equip and maintain its cars with secure and efficient couplers. See Boyer, 38 Ill. 2d at 38, 230 N.E.2d at 178. Determining that Congress intended to impose absolute liability for a violation of the act, the United States Supreme Court "swept all issues of negligence out of cases under the Safety Appliance Act." O'Donnell, 338 U.S. 384, 390, 94 L. Ed. 187, 70 S. Ct. 200. The Court declared that a violation of the act is itself an actionable wrong and is in no way dependent upon negligence. The duty is absolute and the railroad is not excused by showing proof of due care. See O'Donnell, 338 U.S. at 390, 94 L. Ed. 187, 70 S. Ct. 200.

We have no doubt that Congress intended to impose an extraordinary obligation on the railroad for the purpose of protecting a certain class of persons against their own inability to protect themselves from the risks posed by malfunctioning safety appliances. Therefore, Illinois courts will impose absolute liability for a violation that causes injury to a member of that protected class. See Boyer, 38 Ill. 2d at 36-37, 230 N.E.2d at 176-77. A non-railroad employee may bring an independent cause of action when a defendant's violation of the act causes injury. See Jenkins v. Chicago & Eastern Illinois R.R. Co., 5 Ill. App. 3d 954, 960, 284 N.E.2d 392, 397 (1972). In order to present a submissible case, the plaintiff must present evidence showing that the injury was caused by a failure of the equipment to operate in accordance with the requirements of the act, i.e., that the equipment failed to function at the time in question, and that there was a causal connection between the equipment failure and the plaintiff's injury. See Jenkins, 5 Ill. App. 3d at 960, 284 N.E.2d at 397. With that background, we can readily dispose of several related issues raised by Illinois Central.

B. The Scope of the Protected Class

Illinois Central argues that Rusty Jones was not within the class of persons protected by the Safety Appliance Act. Illinois Central contends that because Rusty Jones was not an employee of Illinois Central, because it did not control the manner or method of his work, and because its cars and railroad tracks were within the control of ADM and on ADM property, Rusty Jones cannot be considered a member of the special class that the act protects.

The general purpose of the rail safety programs is to promote safety in every area of railroad operations and to reduce railroad- related accidents and incidents. See 49 U.S.C. §20101 (1994). The Safety Appliance Act, fairly interpreted, "must be held to protect all who need protection from dangerous results due to maintenance or operation of congressionally prohibited defective appliances." Coray v. Southern Pacific Co., 335 U.S. 520, 522, 93 L. Ed. 208, 69 S. Ct. 275, 276 (1949). Illinois courts have held that both passengers (Boyer, 38 Ill. 2d at 37, 230 N.E.2d at 177) and nonemployees (Jenkins, 5 Ill. App. 3d 954, 284 N.E.2d at 401) fall within the scope of its protections.

In this case, plaintiff alleged that Rusty Jones, an ADM employee, was crushed between two rail cars while adjusting a coupler that was not functioning properly. The act requires that rail carriers use rail cars equipped with couplers, capable of being coupled and uncoupled "without the necessity of individuals going between" the cars. 49 U.S.C. §20302 (a)(1)(A) (1994). The express purpose of the act is to place an absolute duty upon the railroad to equip and maintain automatic couplers on their cars in order to protect persons from the risks of working between cars in coupling operations. Given that express purpose, we can conceive of no reason to protect a railroad employee but to ignore a non-employee, such as Rusty Jones, who is injured as a result of exposure to the same risks. See Boyer, 38 Ill. 2d at 37, 230 N.E.2d at 177; see Shields v. Atlantic Coast Line R.R. Co., 350 U.S. 318, 100 L. Ed. 364, 76 S. Ct. 386 (1956). The only difference is whether the injured party seeks his remedy for a violation under the FELA or under a state's common law in tort. See Crane, 395 U.S. at 166, 23 L. Ed. 2d 176, 89 S. Ct. 1706.

Illinois Central also contends that Rusty Jones was not a member of the protected class to which it owed a duty because Illinois Central did not control the manner or method of his work and because its cars and tracks were within the control of ADM and on ADM property.

A railroad is liable for injuries resulting from violation of the act if the equipment causing injury is in use on its line at the time of the injury. See Barney v. Staten Island Rapid Transit Ry. Co., 316 F. 2d 38, 41-42 (3d Cir. 1963). "Federal cases have repeatedly held that a car is in use on a railroad's line, for purposes of the statute, when it has been delivered to a user on its own track for loading and unloading, particularly when that user is not a railroad and neither maintains nor operates railroad equipment." Jenkins, 5 Ill. App. 3d at 963, 284 N.E. 2d at 399 (and cases cited therein).

Our colleagues in the First District addressed this issue in a case factually similar to the case at bar. Jenkins v. Chicago & Eastern Illinois R.R. Co., 5 Ill. App. 954, 963, 284 N.E. 2d 392, 399 (1972). In Jenkins, a Flintkote employee was injured while moving a boxcar on the spur track in the freight yard owned by his employer. There, the railroad delivered box cars to the spur track on Flintkote's freight yard. Flintkote workers then loaded and unloaded the box cars. As part of the loading process, Flintkote's workers had to move the boxcars to and from the loading docks. The workers moved the boxcars on the spur track with a "car mover." Flintkote did not maintain or operate railroad equipment and had no facilities for doing so. It relied upon the railroad to maintain the cars in a safe condition. Its spur track was useless without the railroad's main line. In determining whether rail cars in use on the spur track of a private employer were "in use" on the defendant railroad's line, the court looked to federal decisions for guidance. Relying in particular on the reasoning in a factually similar case, Monongahela Ry. Co. v. Black, 235 F.2d 406 (4th Cir. 1956), the court found that the spur track was merely an extension of the railroad's operating line, promoting business for the railroad, and the court held that the equipment was in use on the defendant's line at the time the injury occurred. Jenkins, 5 Ill. App. 954, 284 N.E.2d 392.

In Monongahela, the plaintiff, an employee of the defendant railroad, was hit by a moving freight car on the side track at the Arkwright coal mine. The coal company did not own any rolling stock or engines. It was not equipped to inspect or repair freight cars. It was a customer whose sole connection with the railroad was loading its cars. The railroad had claimed that it was not liable under the act because its car was not "in use on its line." The court reasoned that the placing of cars on the side track for loading was part of the interstate movement of coal over the railroad's system and that the side track on the property of this private corporation existed "solely for the purpose of promoting commerce" on the railroad's line and was utterly valueless without the railroad. Monongahela, 235 F.2d at 407. The court held that since the car in question was being used as a part of the railroad's business in interstate commerce, the Safety Appliance Act applied. Monongahela, 235 F.2d at 407.

The reasoning of Jenkins and Monongahela is equally applicable in this case. Rusty Jones, an ADM employee, was killed while working with Illinois Central's rail cars. Illinois Central delivered the cars to side tracks on ADM property. Once the cars were placed on ADM's side track, Illinois Central was required to do a "walk around" inspection to search for missing safety appliances. ADM employees then unloaded the grain from the cars onto river barges. Incident to the unloading process, the employees had to move the cars to the unloading pit. ADM had a switch engine that was only used to move Illinois Central's cars to and from the unloading pit, and it operated only on the side track. ADM is not a railroad company and does not operate an independent railroad system. The ADM facility did not and was not equipped to make repairs to rail cars. ADM relied upon Illinois Central to maintain its cars and to deliver them in a safe condition for unloading.

Illinois Central was the only rail carrier that made deliveries to this ADM facility. Illinois Central placed its cars on ADM's side track for unloading purposes. The side track, which connected to Illinois Central's track, was used exclusively for receiving Illinois Central cars. It was not connected with any other railroad's tracks. The track had no purposes other than to permit a more convenient method of unloading Illinois Central's car and to promote commerce on Illinois Central's rail line. In our view, the side track, as used, was an extension of Illinois Central's operating line and a necessary part of the movement of freight over Illinois Central's railway system. See Jenkins, 5 Ill. App. 3d at 962-63, 284 N.E.2d at 399-400; Monongahela, 235 F.2d at 407.

In support of its argument that its car was not in use on its line, Illinois Central relies upon Paul v. Duluth, Missabe, & Iron Range Ry. Co., 96 F. Supp. 578, 579 (D. Minn. 1950). We find this case factually distinguishable. In Paul, the defendant railroad delivered its cars to a quarry company and that company used the cars in its quarry operations for an extended period of time. The quarry company had its own tracks, engines, and switch crew, which was used to move the cars as part of its quarry operations. See Paul, 96 F. Supp. at 579. In that case, the defendant railroad was, in essence, delivering its cars to another private railroad system, which then employed the cars for its own quarry operations.

The federal Safety Appliance Act covers a broad protected class, including railroad employees, passengers, and travelers at railroad crossing. See Boyer, 38 Ill. 2d at 37, 230 N.E.2d at 178. In our view, Rusty Jones was within the class of persons protected by the Safety Appliance Act. Therefore, we find no error in the trial court's decision to deny Illinois Central's motion for summary judgment and to allow plaintiff to proceed with his cause of action premised on a ...


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