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Ammons v. Canadian National Railway Co.

Supreme Court of Illinois

December 19, 2019

MELVIN AMMONS et al, Appellees,
v.
CANADIAN NATIONAL RAILWAY COMPANY et al. (Wisconsin Central, Ltd., Appellant).

          JUSTICE GARMAN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Chief Justice Burke and Justices Thomas, Karmeier, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion. Justice Kilbride dissented, with opinion, joined by Justice Neville.

          OPINION

          GARMAN JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 The Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) (45 U.S.C. § 51 et seq. (2012)) provides the exclusive remedy for railroad employees to recover damages for injuries suffered due to their employer's negligence. This appeal asks whether counterclaims filed by a railroad employer against its allegedly negligent employees are prohibited by sections 55 and 60 of the FELA. We hold that they are not prohibited. We reverse the appellate court's decision and remand to the circuit court for further proceedings.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 Plaintiffs Melvin Ammons and Darrin Riley filed separate lawsuits under the FELA against defendant Wisconsin Central, Ltd. (Wisconsin Central), for injuries they sustained during their employment with the railroad in December 2014. Ammons was employed as a conductor, and Riley was the locomotive engineer when the train they were operating struck another train that was stationary on the same track. In their lawsuits, both plaintiffs alleged Wisconsin Central was negligent in violating various rules and regulations, which resulted in their injuries. As the lawsuits concerned the same incident and contained similar issues, the Cook County circuit court consolidated the cases.

         ¶ 4 Wisconsin Central denied liability and filed counterclaims against both plaintiffs. In the counterclaims, Wisconsin Central alleged that plaintiffs failed to exercise ordinary care and acted in an otherwise careless and negligent manner. As a result of its employees' negligence, Wisconsin Central claimed multiple locomotives, railroad cars, railroad track, and railroad track structures sustained significant damage, which caused it to spend significant amounts of money to repair, perform environmental cleanup and remediation, and incur other incidental and consequential damages. Wisconsin Central sought damages in excess of $1 million.

         ¶ 5 Plaintiffs filed a motion to dismiss the counterclaims pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 2016)), arguing Wisconsin Central's counterclaims violated sections 55 and 60 of the FELA. Section 55 of the FELA prohibits "[a]ny contract, rule, regulation, or device whatsoever, the purpose or intent of which shall be to enable any common carrier to exempt itself from liability." 45 U.S.C. § 55 (2012). Section 60 of the FELA prohibits "[a]ny contract, rule, regulation, or device whatsoever, the purpose, intent, or effect of which shall be to prevent employees of any common carrier from furnishing voluntarily information to a person in interest as to the facts incident to the injury or death of any employee." Id. § 60.

         ¶ 6 Plaintiffs argued that Wisconsin Central's counterclaims constituted a "device" designed to exempt itself from liability to pay damages to injured employees, to deter railroad employees from providing information regarding injury or death of an employee, or both. As the counterclaims had the potential to negate any compensation plaintiffs received for their injuries, plaintiffs argued allowing the counterclaims would have a chilling effect on the filing of injury claims under the FELA.

         ¶ 7 The circuit court granted plaintiffs' motion to dismiss, finding a state common-law counterclaim brought by a common carrier employer against an employee constituted a "device" under the FELA because a successful counterclaim could reduce or effectively eliminate a damages award to the employee.

         ¶ 8 The appellate court affirmed the circuit court's dismissal. 2018 IL App (1st) 172648. Noting several federal cases have found counterclaims for property damage do not fall within the meaning of "device" under section 55 of the FELA, the appellate court found a lack of a clear consensus and stated cases to the contrary conclude "the counterclaims are retaliatory devices calculated to intimidate and exert economic pressure on injured employees, curtail their rights when asserting injury claims and supplying information, and ultimately, exempt the railways from liability under the FELA." Id. ¶ 19. The appellate court concluded that prohibiting counterclaims by railroads against their employees is the correct interpretation of sections 55 and 60 of the FELA "and is the interpretation most consistent with the FELA's overarching goal of providing a remedy to employees injured while participating in this dangerous occupation." Id. ¶ 21.

         ¶ 9 Justice Pierce dissented, believing "a railroad's counterclaim for property damages is not a 'device' used to 'exempt' a railroad from 'liability' under the FELA." Id. ¶ 35 (Pierce, J., dissenting). The dissent expressed concern that the majority's decision "would produce the absurd result that an uninjured employee that negligently causes property damage would be liable for damages but an injured employee that negligently causes damages would be immune from a property damage claim." Id. ¶ 40.

         ¶ 10 Wisconsin Central petitioned this court for leave to appeal, and we allowed that petition. Ill. S.Ct. R. 315 (eff. July 1, 2018). The Illinois Trial Lawyers Association and the Academy of Rail Labor Attorneys sought, and we granted, leave to file amicus briefs. Ill. S.Ct. R. 345 (eff. Sept. 20, 2010).

         ¶ 11 ANALYSIS

         ¶ 12 I. Standard of Review

         ¶ 13 The appellate court affirmed the circuit court's order dismissing Wisconsin Central's counterclaims pursuant to plaintiffs' motion under section 2-615 of the Code. Although the motion to dismiss would have been more appropriately filed under section 2-619 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2016)) because plaintiffs' motion sought to raise an affirmative matter seeking to avoid the legal effect of or defeat the claim, our review of a dismissal under either section is de novo. Patrick Engineering, Inc. v. City of Naperville, 2012 IL 113148, ¶ 31.

         ¶ 14 II. Whether Wisconsin Central's Counterclaims Against Plaintiffs Are Prohibited

         ¶ 15 A. The FELA

         ¶ 16 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, ...

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