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Langenhorst v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co.

December 15, 2004


Appeal from the Circuit Court of St. Clair County. No. 01-L-658. Honorable Lloyd A. Cueto, Judge, presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Kuehn

The two Norfolk Southern Railway Company crossbucks that bracket railroad crossing 724641H, and warn of its existence, cast their shadows 26 miles east by northeast of the St. Clair County courthouse. The crossbucks stand about nine miles closer to the Clinton County courthouse.

[9]     This seemingly unimportant geographical difference in reference to the courtrooms of two adjacent counties became important when Rita Langenhorst chose to file this wrongful death action in St. Clair County, instead of Clinton County. Widow Langenhorst lives in Clinton County, only 500 feet from the Clinton County crossing that claimed her husband's life.

Because the accident that led to Gerald Langenhorst's death occurred in Clinton County, because Rita Langenhorst lives in Clinton County, and because a number of potential witnesses hail from Clinton County, Norfolk Southern Railway Company (Norfolk Southern) and several of its employees claim that a defense of this action in a St. Clair County courtroom will inconvenience them. They prefer to litigate in a Clinton County courtroom, maintaining that a trial in Clinton County will better serve the ends of justice than a trial in the forum that widow Langenhorst prefers.

When the railroad and its employees asked St. Clair County Circuit Judge Lloyd Cueto to transfer the case, he refused to do so. Judge Cueto concluded that the reasons behind the defendants' plea for a more convenient courtroom did not strongly favor their desired transfer to Clinton County.

Norfolk Southern and its employees petitioned us to allow an immediate interlocutory appeal of the ruling pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 306 (166 Ill. 2d R. 306). We denied the petition. The defendants then petitioned the Illinois Supreme Court for its review of the ruling. Our high court denied the defendants' request for leave to appeal but used its supervisory power to order our reconsideration of the matter in light of two recent supreme court decisions-Dawdy v. Union Pacific R.R. Co., 207 Ill. 2d 167, 797 N.E.2d 687 (2003), and First American Bank v. Guerine, 198 Ill. 2d 511, 764 N.E.2d 54 (2002). Langenhorst v. Norfolk Southern Ry. Co., 205 Ill. 2d 586, 796 N.E.2d 1053 (2003). This interlocutory appeal ensued.

We must determine whether Judge Cueto abused the exercise of his discretion when he refused to allow the defendants' request for a transfer to Clinton County. We only find such an abuse if we conclude that "no reasonable person would take the view adopted by [Judge Cueto]." Dawdy, 207 Ill. 2d at 177, 797 N.E.2d at 696.

Regardless of where it will be told, this lawsuit's story will speak to human tragedy. The accident that led to Gerald Langenhorst's death took place on the Langenhorst farm. The farm is located several miles west of Germantown, Illinois, on the southwestern edge of Clinton County. It rests only a few miles east of St. Clair County's eastern border. For that reason, the farm is just about as close to Belleville, Illinois, as it is to Carlyle, Illinois, the county seats of St. Clair and Clinton Counties.

Belleville and Germantown are sister cities, with a common heritage. German immigrants settled in this region of southern Illinois during the nineteenth century.

The Langenhorst family has drawn sustenance from the farm, and renewed itself there, for generations. Anthony and Ann, offspring of Rita and Gerald's union, grew up there, just like Gerald before them. And all the while, a set of Norfolk Southern railroad tracks ran right through the middle of the farm. The rails were laid long ago. Iron horses, pulling freight-laden carriages, have thundered through the Langenhorst cornfields ever since.

In the waning hours of a bright summer afternoon in 2001, Norfolk Southern lead engine 8812, lugging 118 cars of freight, rumbled across southern Illinois from west to east at approximately 45 miles per hour. Shortly before the five o'clock hour, it rolled onto the Langenhorst farm.

The tracks that traverse the farm cross Woodlawn Lane, the country road that leads to the Langenhorst farmhouse. The crossing is only about 500 feet from the front porch of the house. The farmhouse is so close to the tracks that it vibrates and rattles every time a train rumbles by. Anyone inside the house can feel a train's approach.

The farm's inhabitants have to cross the tracks all the time. Gerald Langenhorst had bounced a lifetime of vehicles over crossing 724641H. He crossed it almost every day of his 70-year life upon Mother Earth.

On July 27, 2001, the last day of that life, Gerald headed home for the supper that Rita customarily prepared for him. It was the Langenhorst family way to gather for early evening suppers right after the completion of the day's labors. Rita had prepared meals like it long before the years had retouched the color of her hair.

Rita awaited Gerald's arrival, periodically looking down the old country road for Gerald's approaching Chevy pickup truck. Rita did not know it, but she and Gerald would not dine upon the evening meal that she had cooked that day.

Rita noticed the train's approach. Shortly thereafter, at precisely 4:49 p.m., Rita heard the sound that a Norfolk Southern diesel engine makes when it rams the side panel of a 1993 Chevy 1500 pickup truck while traveling along at approximately 45 miles per hour. As she rushed from the farmhouse, she could hear the clanging of freight cars as the train's engineer did his best to bring his 118-car carriage to a stop. He managed to still the train before the twenty-eighth freight car of that carriage passed the crossing.

The freight cars that had passed the crossing obscured the fresh wreckage of Gerald's ravaged vehicle from Rita's view. She could not see it or Gerald, who had been tossed 85 feet from his truck. Gerald lay in a field on the other side of the train, alive and conscious.

Gerald was rushed to St. Joseph's Hospital in Breese, Illinois. He was able to give his version of events to the emergency room doctors who treated him.

The doctors at St. Joseph's Hospital believed that Gerald's back was broken and that the fracture had injured his spinal cord. Gerald had no feeling or movement in his legs. He also suffered from a concussion and from multiple rib fractures with associated contusions that resulted in impaired breathing and hypoxia.

St. Joseph's Hospital was not equipped to treat Gerald's neurological injuries. After a brief stay at St. Joseph's Hospital, a helicopter rushed Gerald to St. Louis University Hospital for more intensive medical care. Before Gerald left, he and Rita shared their final word. Rita hugged and kissed Gerald, and whispered that she loved him. She told Gerald that she would see him in St. Louis.

The doctors at St. Louis University Hospital could not save Gerald. At 7:15 p.m., Gerald Langenhorst perished due to the injuries that he had sustained. The earlier collision at the crossing on his farm marked the beginning of the end of Gerald's life. Gerald's death gave birth to this lawsuit. Here is what happened after Gerald was laid to rest.

Rita Langenhorst hired Tom Keefe to champion her and her family's interests. On October 22, 2001, Keefe drove the mile or so from his law office in Fairview Heights to the St. Clair County courthouse in Belleville. He filed this action on behalf of the Langenhorst heirs, suing the railroad, the railroad employees who operated the train that killed Gerald, and the division engineer who maintains Norfolk Southern crossings, including crossing 724641H.

The complaint was served upon Norfolk Southern's registered agent for the State of Illinois, an attorney who lives and works in Belleville. After the railroad received the notice of the lawsuit, it hired Thompson Coburn LLP to defend it and its employees. Thompson Coburn LLP assigned Kurt Reitz as lead trial counsel for its clients. Reitz's office is located about eight blocks west of the St. Clair County courthouse.

In late January of 2002, Reitz filed a verified motion to transfer venue based upon the "Doctrine of Forum Non Conveniens." Reitz filed a supplementary affidavit in support of the motion. St. Joseph's Hospital medical records that spanned over a decade of medical care provided to Gerald Langenhorst accompanied the affidavit. The first 24 pages were devoted to the treatment administered immediately after the July 27 collision. They revealed the existence of two potential witnesses-two physicians who work at St. Joseph's Hospital. Dr. Keith Thomae was Gerald's primary emergency medical caretaker at the Breese facility. Dr. David Sorge assisted Thomae.

Reitz also supported his motion with widow Langenhorst's answers to interrogatories. Those answers set forth the names of several family friends and relatives who might bear witness to the quality of Rita and Gerald's union in life. They also contained the names of three neighbors who were at the scene of the accident. None of the neighbors heard a warning whistle prior to the accident. All of the friends, relatives, and neighbors are people who live in or around Germantown and Albers, Illinois, small Clinton County communities in close proximity to the Langenhorst farm.

On May 22, 2002, Reitz filed the affidavits of defendants Ellis, Baggett, and Egmon. Each of them swore that it would not inconvenience them to appear in Clinton County for the trial of this case. In the affidavits, the three defendants did not mention the inconvenience of St. Clair County. Reitz verified the following as a "list of witnesses" who hail from Clinton County:

Rita Langenhorst.

Deputy C. Becherer.

New Baden Ambulance.

Germantown fire department.

Albers City Ambulance.

Breese Ambulance Service.

St. Joseph Hospital.

Robke Auto Body.

Given this list, it is presumed that there are ambulance personnel, hospital personnel, firefighters, and auto body repair personnel who can give some form of evidence in the case. We are not told who those people are, where they live, or what kind of testimony they might provide relevant to those issues expected to be litigated.

Finally, Reitz filed the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts year 2000 civil litigation statistics for St. Clair and Clinton Counties. The statistics provide a measure of respective court congestion, by recording the number of newly filed civil cases for the year 2000, the number of cases disposed of in the year 2000, and the average delay from filing to verdict, on a county-by-county basis.

On June 12, 2002, Judge Cueto conducted a hearing on the requested venue transfer. During those proceedings, he commented upon the statistical three-year average delay between the filing of a lawsuit and the trial of that suit in St. Clair County. He insisted that the three-year average delay does not express involuntary delay, incident to congested civil court dockets in St. Clair County. According to Judge Cueto, delay does not have to accompany the filing of any major civil suit in St. Clair County. ...

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