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Williams v. BNSF Railway Co.

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Third Division

March 18, 2015

ANTHONY WILLIAMS, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
BNSF RAILWAY COMPANY, f/k/a Burlington Northern Railway Company, f/k/a the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Company, d/b/a the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company, Defendant-Appellant and Third-Party Plaintiff-Appellant, (Quality Terminal Services, LLC, Third-Party Defendant-Appellee)

Page 1098

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. 06 L 8509. Honorable Clare E. McWilliams, Judge Presiding.

Daley Mohan Groble PC, of Chicago (Raymond H. Groble III, Sean M. Sullivan, and Jeffrey J. Scolaro, of counsel), for appellant.

Cochran, Cherry, Givens, Smith & Montgomery, LLC, of Chicago (James D. Montgomery, Jr., and John K. Kennedy, of counsel), for appellee Anthony Williams.

Fletcher & Sippel LLC, of Chicago (James A. Fletcher and Peter C. McLeod, of counsel), for appellee Quality Terminal Services, LLC.

JUSTICE MASON delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Neville and Hyman concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

Page 1099

MASON, JUSTICE.

[¶1] Plaintiff-appellee Anthony Williams filed suit against defendant-appellant BNSF Railway Company (BNSF) pursuant to the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) (45 U.S.C. § 51) (2006), for an employment-related injury. BNSF filed a third-party complaint for contribution and contractual indemnification against third-party defendant-appellee Quality Terminal Services (QTS). The jury returned a verdict in favor of Williams and awarded total damages in the amount of $2,676,960. The jury assessed 50% of the negligence involved in the injury to Williams, 37.5% to BNSF and 12.5% to QTS. The jury also returned a verdict in favor of QTS on BNSF's contractual indemnity claim.

[¶2] On September 25, 2013, this court dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction, concluding that because the only issue remaining after the trial court's oral ruling denying BNSF's posttrial motion was a tax setoff issue that did not toll the time for filing an appeal, BNSF's appeal was not timely filed. Williams v. BNSF Ry. Co., 2013 IL App. (1st) 121901, ¶ 20, 998 N.E.2d 543, 376 Ill.Dec. 1. The supreme court reversed and remanded, holding that the judgment was not final until the trial court issued its ruling on the setoff issue, because the trial court's prior oral ruling was not entered in the law record book until that date. Williams v. BNSF Ry. Co.,

Page 1100

2015 IL 117444, ¶ 45. Thus, we now address the merits of BNSF's appeal.

[¶3] On appeal, BNSF contends that the circuit court erred in denying its motion for a directed verdict on the contractual indemnity claim where the evidence established that BNSF gave reasonable notice to QTS. BNSF further contends that the circuit court erred in refusing to allow evidence related to Williams' termination of employment with BNSF. Finally, BNSF contends that the circuit court erred in allowing evidence of the loss of household services, including unsupported opinion testimony regarding the value of those services. We are not persuaded by BNSF's arguments and affirm the judgment of the circuit court of Cook County.

[¶4] BACKGROUND

[¶5] On August 21, 2003, Williams was working as a crane operator for BNSF and sustained an injury to his back for which he obtained immediate medical attention. The incident occurred at an intermodal rail facility located in Cicero, Illinois, that is owned and operated by BNSF. Williams' employment with BNSF was scheduled to be terminated at the end of his shift, an event that was related to prior disciplinary violations.

[¶6] The BNSF Cicero yard is a hub for shipping and receiving freight in containers that are placed on and removed from railcar chassis or delivery trucks by the use of a crane operated by an employee, the crane operator, assisted from the ground by another employee, the crane director. The crane operators and directors are BNSF employees but at the time of the incident, the loading and unloading operations at the facility were managed and supervised by QTS pursuant to an " Intermodal Facilities Services Agreement" (Agreement) between QTS and BNSF. The Agreement contained an indemnification clause that required BNSF to give reasonable notice to QTS of any claim that could trigger the indemnification provision.

[¶7] Following the incident, BNSF initiated an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Williams' injury. In December 2003, BNSF received written notice of an attorney's lien from a law firm retained by Williams to pursue a personal injury claim. BNSF received a second notice of an attorney's lien from a different law firm in March 2005.

[¶8] Williams filed his complaint against BNSF on August 20, 2006. One of the acts of negligence alleged in the complaint was BNSF's failure to provide Williams with " sufficient manpower" to perform his duties on the date of the accident.

[¶9] Williams was deposed in May 2007. Williams testified that on the night he was injured he was working alone and that Frank Stephenson, the QTS supervisor on duty, directed him to do so. Pursuant to the Agreement, BNSF submitted a written demand for indemnity to QTS in August 2007, predicated on information BNSF claimed it first learned from Williams' deposition testimony. QTS rejected the demand and BNSF filed a third-party complaint against QTS for contribution and indemnity on August 26, 2008. In response to BNSF's claim for indemnification, QTS raised the affirmative defense that BNSF had not submitted its written demand for indemnification within a " reasonable time" as required under the Agreement.

[¶10] Prior to trial, Williams filed a motion in limine to bar evidence of his termination by BNSF on the grounds that it was not relevant to the issues in the case. At the hearing on the motion, the trial court stated that it did not want a " trial

Page 1101

within a trial" where the jurors would concern themselves with whether or not Williams was properly terminated, a proposition with which counsel for BNSF agreed. Counsel for BNSF argued, however, that the termination was relevant to an argument that Williams had a motive to fabricate his injury. During the trial, the trial court again ruled against the admission of the evidence, particularly because there was no evidence to suggest that Williams knew he was going to be terminated that day, thus undermining any motive BNSF could ascribe to him.

[¶11] Also prior to trial, the trial court denied QTS' motion for summary judgment on the timeliness of BNSF's demand for indemnification under the Agreement. The court found that there existed genuine issues of material fact regarding when BNSF knew or should have known that the negligence of a QTS employee caused, in whole or in part, Williams' injury and that whether BNSF submitted its demand ...


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