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.
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
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
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.