Illinois Court Considers Liability of Truck Driver for Amtrak Accident

In March of 1999, in Bourbonnais, Illinois, an Amtrak passenger train collided with a semi-tractor trailer driven by John Stokes, causing a serious accident that resulted in many deaths. A number of lawsuits followed and, recently, in Dowe v. Birmingham Steel Corporation, Nos. 1-09-1997, 1-09-2006, the Appellate Court of Illinois, First District, considered liability for the accident in a consolidated appeal.

The facts in this case are simple. The driver of the tractor trailer, Stokes, ignored flashing warning lights at the railroad crossing and attempted to drive through the crossing ahead of an oncoming train. As he did so, the Amtrak passenger train collided with the rear of the tractor-trailer as Stokes. The accident caused pieces of rebar that were loaded onto the back of the truck to be thrown onto the tracks. This in turn derailed the locomotives and most of the passenger cars, killing 11 passengers and injuring many others.

One issue on appeal was whether Birmingham Steel was negligent in using nylon straps instead of steel chains when anchoring the load of steel rebar to the flatbed trailer. The Court concluded that the method in which the rebar was anchored to the trailer had nothing to do with the cause of the accident. Instead, the accident occurred because of the tractor trailer driver’s negligence:

“The manner in which the load of rebar was anchored and secured to the flatbed trailer had nothing to do with the cause of the accident. The accident arose from Stokes’ conduct in ignoring the flashing warning lights at the railroad crossing and attempting to drive through the crossing ahead of an oncoming train traveling at nearly 80 miles per hour, where the resulting collision caused pieces of rebar to be thrown onto the tracks derailing the train. In this case, the activity of transporting the oversized load of steel was not a peculiar risk within the meaning of sections 413 and 416 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts.”

Because the Court concluded that Stoke’s negligent driving was the proximate cause of the truck accident, the Court denied that alternate arguments regarding causes of liability applied and thus upheld the judgment of the court below.

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