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Hoffman v. Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad Corp.

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Fourth Division

December 29, 2017

ROBERT HOFFMAN, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
NORTHEAST ILLINOIS REGIONAL COMMUTER RAILROAD CORPORATION d/b/a METRA, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 14 L 5879 The Honorable Claire E. McWilliams, Judge, presiding.

          JUSTICE GORDON delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices McBride and Ellis concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          GORDON, JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 Plaintiff Robert Hoffman sued defendant Northeast Illinois Regional Commuter Railroad Corporation (Metra), alleging negligence when a Metra ticket agent stepped backward on a train platform, bumping into plaintiff and causing plaintiff to fall and break his hip. After a jury trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff and against defendant, and assessed damages totaling $500, 000, which were itemized as follows: (1) past medical expenses, $54, 263.70; (2) future medical expenses, $70, 000; (3) past pain and suffering, $45, 736.30; (4) future pain and suffering, $30, 000; (5) past loss of normal life, $100, 000; (6) future loss of normal life, $100, 000; and (7) disfigurement, $100, 000. However, the jury found plaintiff 50% responsible and reduced his total recoverable damages to $250, 000.

         ¶ 2 Defendant filed a posttrial motion: (1) seeking a new trial on the ground that the trial court erred in allowing evidence of defendant's internal safety rules and regulations; or (2), in the alternative, seeking a remittitur of the damages that the jury awarded plaintiff for future medical expenses. The trial court denied the motion, and defendant raises the same two claims on this appeal. For the following reasons, we affirm.

         ¶ 3 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 4 In its appellate brief, plaintiff did not include a statement of facts. The following facts were established at trial and do not appear to be in dispute on appeal. Ill. S.Ct. R. 341(i) (eff. Jan. 1, 2016) (a statement of facts "need not be included" in an appellee's brief "except to the extent that the presentation by the appellant is deemed unsatisfactory" by the appellee).

         ¶ 5 Plaintiff, a 68-year old resident of Fox Lake, Illinois, departed his home early in the morning of Saturday, June 8, 2013, to walk to a nearby McDonald's restaurant. This destination caused him to walk past the Metra station in Fox Lake.

         ¶ 6 Richard Davis, a Metra employee for 27 years, worked as the ticket agent at the Fox Lake station, where he had been stationed since 1991. On June 8, 2013, the day in question, Davis arrived at the station at 4:35 a.m. and did not initially notice anyone on the platform. However, at 5 a.m., Davis observed a man in a sleeping bag on the platform, who was lying parallel to the train tracks. The tracks are below the platform, but the platform is at ground level. The platform consists of brick pavers and, at some point, the pavers end and merge with the sidewalk, which is made of concrete.

         ¶ 7 Sometime before 5:30 a.m., Davis exited the station in order to ask the sleeping man to move. Davis walked south, on the brick pavers located on the west side of the tracks. As Davis exited the station, Davis noticed plaintiff, whom Davis had observed walking past the station on other occasions. When Davis reached the man in the sleeping bag, Davis asked him to leave the platform. As the man started to stand up, Davis took a step back and, thereby, bumped into plaintiff who, unknown to Davis, was right behind Davis. It is undisputed that Davis did not look behind him before stepping back. Plaintiff fell to the ground, and Davis and another person helped plaintiff to a nearby bench.

         ¶ 8 It was plaintiff's plan to sit for a while and rest. However, after the 10:45 a.m. train came and went, a Metra police officer approached; and eventually an ambulance transported plaintiff to a hospital where he was diagnosed with a fractured hip.

         ¶ 9 On June 3, 2014, plaintiff filed a complaint against defendant alleging that Davis, a Metra employee, breached a duty of care to plaintiff when Davis stepped backward without looking, thereby causing plaintiff to fall. Metra answered and asserted that plaintiff was contributorily negligent.

         ¶ 10 Prior to trial, defendant filed a motion in limine on September 13, 2016, seeking to bar plaintiff from introducing evidence or argument concerning defendant's internal safety rules. On the day in question, defendant had an employee safety manual entitled "Safety Rules and General Procedures Manual." Rule 1.12 in the manual required defendant's employees to:

"be careful to prevent injury to themselves or others. They must be alert and attentive when performing their duties and plan their work to avoid injury."

         ¶ 11 Rule 100.9.3 stated:

"Elevated Places, Stairs, Doors and Elevators: The following requirements when walking on an elevated place, walking on stairs, using a door or riding elevators: Rule Number 1, when walking on engines, cars, scaffolds, or other elevated places, (A) look before you step in any direction."

         ¶ 12 In connection with its pretrial motion, defendant argued to the trial court that its internal safety rules were not relevant to plaintiff's claims because the rules were developed for the safety of its employees not for the safety of the general public. The trial court denied defendant's motion.

         ¶ 13 Prior to opening statements on September 14, 2015, defendant renewed its motion seeking to bar plaintiff "from making any comment *** that a violation of Metra's *** rules or internal guidelines constitutes negligence and/or imposes a legal duty on the defendant." The trial court denied defendant's motion, stating: "this is routinely and customarily and properly used to show evidence of negligence in a case. This motion is denied."

         ¶ 14 Since most of the facts in this case are undisputed on this appeal, we focus below on the evidence and arguments at trial concerning the two points of contention on appeal: the admission of defendant's safety rules; and the sufficiency of the evidence concerning defendant's future medical expenses.

         ¶ 15 During opening remarks, plaintiff argued, among other things:

"We're here today because we're suing Metra. Rich Davis was an employee of Metra when he broke a safety rule. A railroad company acts through its employees. We know that Metra violated this rule because Rich Davis told us. He'll tell you as well. He'll tell you that he took- he'll tell you that he did not look when he took a step backwards."

         ¶ 16 During the ensuing trial, plaintiff questioned Davis at length about defendant's safety rules. For example, plaintiff asked Davis concerning Rule 100.9.3, as follows:

"PLAINTIFF'S COUNSEL: And when it comes to Rule 100.9.3, 'Elevated Places, Stairs, Doors and Elevators, the rule states: The following requirements when walking on an elevated place, walking on stairs, using a door or riding elevators: Rule Number 1, when walking on engines, cars, scaffolds or other elevated places, (A) look before you step in any direction.'
Does that rule apply to you on June 8, 2013?
DAVIS: I don't know how you can call a platform an elevated structure, sir."

         ¶ 17 Plaintiff's counsel continued to ask Davis about this particular rule:

"PLAINTIFF'S COUNSEL: Looking back at Rule 100.9.3, elevated places, stairs, doors and elevators you have already testified I think to the Members of the Jury that a platform is elevated from the tracks and the ballast; isn't that right?
DAVIS: I don't know how a platform could be considered an elevated area.
PLAINTIFF'S COUNSEL: Would you agree, Mr. Davis, that a platform is elevated above the rocks [supporting the tracks]?
DAVIS: Yes, it is.
PLAINTIFF'S COUNSEL: And would you agree then that it's important in order for someone not to fall off the platform onto the track and ballast and then rock, correct-
DAVIS: Yes.
PLAINTIFF'S COUNSEL: -on the track and ballast, that they follow Rule 100.9.3?
DEFENSE COUNSEL: Objection, relevance.
THE COURT: Overruled. You can answer.
DAVIS: It's important, yes.
PLAINTIFF'S COUNSEL: With that understanding, would you agree then on June 8, 2013, when you walked out onto the platform that Rule ...

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