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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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,