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Sunday, August 18, 2019

Man loses case after blaming employer for being rear-ended by drunk driver

By Erianne Leatherman | Mar 3, 2017

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (Legal Newsline) – The Illinois Supreme Court on Feb. 17 reversed an appellate court finding in the case of an Union Pacific employee was injured on the job.

In August 2008, Christopher Wardwell was working for Union Pacific as a switchman, brakeman and conductor for Union Pacific when he was a passenger in a railroad van driven by another railroad employee, Regina Goodwin.

The suit says as they were traveling from a railway yard to a train, their van was rear-ended by another driver, Erin Behnken, who was under the influence of alcohol. 

As a result of the car accident, the lawsuit states, Wardwell received a back injury so severe that he was unable to continue performing his work duties. He is still employed by Union Pacific, but as a security guard at lower wages.

Following the incident, Wardwell filed a lawsuit against Behnken and won a settlement, court documents said. 

He then filed a lawsuit against Union Pacific, citing the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), alleging Union Pacific was at fault because Goodwin had caused the accident by negligently cutting in front of Behnken’s vehicle, court documents said.

Union Pacific argued Behnken was the only person responsible, and the lawsuit went to trial in 2013. At that time, the jury ruled in Union Pacific’s favor, particularly after hearing Behnken’s testimony at trial in which she said she had been driving drunk.

Court documents noted Behnken “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.”

Wardwell then asked for a new trial on grounds that Union Pacific “had improperly been allowed to argue to the jury that the sole cause of his injuries was the negligent conduct of Behnken,” court documents said, and that Union Pacific should not have been permitted to use a “sole-cause defense” because it is not allowed under FELA, but the motion was denied by the circuit court, court documents stated.

The circuit court judge then denied the new trial request, and Wardwell took the case to appellate court where a 2-1 ruling favored Wardwell and overturned the circuit court’s ruling. 

After that decision, Union Pacific took the case to Illinois Supreme Court, which overthrew the appellate ruling and reinstated the circuit court’s decision last month, according to court documents. 

"The jury cannot make a factual determination regarding whether the defendant railroad was at least 'in part' a cause of the accident, as FELA requires, if it is not allowed to consider all of the circumstances surrounding the accident, including whether another party’s negligent conduct was the only negligent conduct that caused the accident," Justice Anne Burke wrote for the majority.

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