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Wardwell v. Union Pacific Railroad Co.

Supreme Court of Illinois

February 17, 2017

CHRISTOPHER WARDWELL, Appellee,
v.
UNION PACIFIC RAILROAD COMPANY, Appellant.

          JUSTICE BURKE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Chief Justice Karmeier and Justices Freeman, Thomas, Garman, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          BURKE, JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 At issue in this appeal is whether, in an action brought under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq. (2006)), a defendant railroad may argue to the jury that a third party was the only person whose negligent conduct caused the plaintiff's injuries. For the reasons that follow, we hold that it may.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 In 2008, the plaintiff, Christopher Wardwell, was employed by the defendant, Union Pacific Railroad Company, as a switchman, brakeman, and conductor on freight trains. On August 9, 2008, plaintiff and another employee were riding in a van owned by defendant, going from a railway yard near East St. Louis to one of defendant's trains farther south. The van was being driven by defendant's agent, Regina Goodwin. While the van was heading south in the right lane of Illinois Route 3, it was rear-ended by a vehicle driven by Erin Behnken. Plaintiff suffered a severe back injury in the accident and is no longer able to perform his job duties. He is currently employed by defendant as a security guard at significantly reduced wages.

         ¶ 4 Plaintiff brought the instant action against defendant under the Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) (45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq. (2006)), alleging that Goodwin had negligently cut in front of Behnken and that Goodwin's negligence was a cause of the accident. The matter proceeded to trial before a jury.

         ¶ 5 At trial, evidence was presented that, in the early morning hours of August 9, 2008, Goodwin was driving defendant's van in the left lane of Route 3, with plaintiff and another employee as passengers. After letting a truck-trailer combination go ahead of her on the right, Goodwin activated her turn signal, checked her side mirror, confirmed there was no other vehicle on her right, and then made a lane change to the right lane. At the time she made the lane change, Goodwin was not speeding or violating any traffic laws. None of the occupants of the van saw any car or any car's headlights in the right lane prior to the collision.

         ¶ 6 Approximately 20 seconds after making the lane change, defendant's van was struck from behind by a vehicle driven by Behnken. At trial, Behnken testified that she was drunk at the time of the collision, that she was arrested at the scene of the accident for driving under the influence, and that she was found to be legally intoxicated two hours later when she took a breath test. Behnken stated that she did not see the van before she hit it and that she either "fell asleep or was blacked out" prior to the collision. She did not know if she had her headlights on. Further evidence indicated that Behnken was travelling 60 to 65 miles per hour, which was 10 to 15 miles per hour over the posted speed limit. The jury, after hearing this evidence, returned a verdict in favor of defendant.

         ¶ 7 Thereafter, plaintiff filed a motion for new trial. In this motion, plaintiff alleged that defendant had improperly been allowed to argue to the jury that the sole cause of his injuries was the negligent conduct of Behnken. According to plaintiff, this "sole-cause defense" was not permissible in a FELA action. The circuit court denied plaintiff's motion.

         ¶ 8 A divided appellate court reversed and remanded. 2016 IL App (5th) 140461. A majority of the appellate court held that the FELA does not allow a defendant railroad to argue that a third-party's negligent conduct was the sole cause of the employee's injuries. Justice Moore, dissenting, would have held that the jury properly determined the railroad was not a cause of the accident.

         ¶ 9 We granted defendant's petition for leave to appeal. Ill. S.Ct. R. 315 (eff. Jan. 1, 2015).

         ¶ 10 ANALYSIS

         ¶ 11 Plaintiff's principal contention on appeal is that the circuit court erred in denying his motion for a new trial. " '[O]n a motion for a new trial a court will weigh the evidence and set aside the verdict and order a new trial if the verdict is contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence.' " Maple v. Gustafson, 151 Ill.2d 445, 454 (1992) (quoting Mizowek v. De Franco, 64 Ill.2d 303, 310 (1976)). A verdict is against the manifest weight of the evidence where the opposite conclusion is clearly evident or where the findings of the jury are unreasonable, arbitrary, and not based upon any of the evidence. Id. A circuit court's ruling on a motion for new trial is afforded considerable deference and will only be reversed in those instances where it is affirmatively shown that the court clearly abused its discretion. Id. at 455.

         ¶ 12 Enacted in 1908, the FELA is the exclusive means by which railroad employees can recover for injuries against their employers. The FELA provides, in relevant part, that "[e]very common carrier by railroad while engaging in commerce *** shall be liable in damages to any person suffering injury while he is employed by such carrier in such commerce *** for such injury or death resulting in whole or in part from the negligence of any of the officers, agents, or employees of such carrier." 45 U.S.C. § 51 (2006). In order to recover damages under the FELA, a plaintiff must show that the railroad was engaged in interstate commerce, that the plaintiff was an employee in interstate commerce acting in the scope of his employment, that his employer was negligent, and that his injury resulted "in whole or in part" from his employer's negligence. Id.; see, e.g., ...


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