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September 24th, 2012

Illinois High Court Decision Shines among ‘Points of Light’

Illinois’ highest court last week reversed two lower court decisions in striking down a $3.9 million dollar jury award of damages for a youngster injured while trespassing and horsing around on a moving freight train.

According to the Madison County Record, the plaintiff was 12-years-old in 2003 when “he tried to impress his friends by jumping onto a moving train in Chicago Ridge and ended up having his foot run over,” ultimately resulting in the amputation of his leg below the knee.

He sued the defendant railroad companies, “claiming that they failed to adequately fence the area and prevent minor children from gaining access to their trains or railroad tracks.”

But in its unanimous decision (see Dominic Choate v. Indiana Harbor Belt Co., et al., 2012 IL 112948), the Illinois Supreme Court declared:

“It has never been part of our law that a landowner may be liable to a trespasser who proceeds to wantonly expose himself to unmistakable danger in total disregard of a fully understood risk, simply for the thrill of the venture.  . . . In sum, because plaintiff was a trespasser, defendants owed him no duty of reasonable care, except to refrain from willfully and wantonly injuring him, which plaintiff does not allege.

“It is always unfortunate when a child gets injured while playing, but the responsibility for a child’s safety lies primarily with his parents, whose duty it is to see that the child does not endanger himself.”

Hear, hear!

A Cook County jury had originally awarded the plaintiff $6.5 million, and reduced that to $3.9 million after finding him 40 percent negligent. Illinois’ First District Appellate Court later affirmed the judgment, only to have the state’s high court reassert some common sense into the common law.

This decision will certainly be considered for citation among “Points of Light” in the 2012/2013 edition of the annual Judicial Hellholes report, to be issued in December.

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