Justia U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Transportation Law
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The Railroad sent Abernathy and Probus to repair a railroad crossing, which required them to transport ties several miles. The Railroad had a “tie crane,” which runs on the railroad tracks but it had been inoperable for years. The employees had two options: a backhoe or a pickup truck, traveling on public roads. Abernathy drove the backhoe. Probus drove the pickup, with the tools. Two ties fell out of the backhoe’s bucket. Abernathy stopped to lift the ties back into the bucket, injuring his back and smashing a finger. Despite the accident, the men finished the job. The following morning, Abernathy reported the injury. Abernathy worked through the pain on lighter duty for a year but was unable to return to his regular work. The Railroad terminated his employment. He had physical therapy, epidural injections, and surgery but continued to experience pain. At the time of trial, his surgeon had not cleared him for any type of work. Abernathy sued under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, 45 U.S.C 51. A jury found that Abernathy was 30 percent at fault and awarded a net amount, $525,000. The court awarded Abernathy prevailing party costs but declined to award witness fees above the statutory amount. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The jury could reasonably find that the Railroad did not provide Abernathy with appropriate equipment and that his working environment was not reasonably safe; a reasonable person in the Railroad’s position could have foreseen that transporting ties in a backhoe or pickup could lead to injury. There was sufficient evidence that the Railroad’s negligence played a part in causing Abernathy’s injury. View "Abernathy v. Eastern Illinois Railroad Co." on Justia Law

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Chapter 70 of the Wisconsin Tax Code governs the taxation of manufacturing and commercial companies aside from railroads and utilities. Chapter 76 governs the taxation of railroads and utilities, including air carriers, pipeline companies, and water conservation and regulation companies. The Code contains exemptions from the general property tax, including an exemption for “all intangible personal property,” which covers custom computer software. Manufacturing and commercial taxpayers generally qualify for the intangible personal property exemption; railroads and utilities do not and are the only taxpayers that Wisconsin requires to pay taxes on intangible property, including custom software. Union Pacific claimed the value of its custom software as exempt. The Department of Revenue audited Union Pacific and concluded that for the years 2014 and 2015, it owed $2,631,104.77 in back taxes and interest after disallowing that deduction. Union Pacific filed suit, arguing that the tax singles out railroads as part of an isolated and targeted group in violation of the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976, 49 U.S.C. 11501(b)(4). The Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of Union Pacific. The intangible property tax exempts everyone except for an isolated and targeted group of which railroads are a part. View "Union Pacific Railroad Co. v. Wisconsin Department of Revenue" on Justia Law

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Under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, before obtaining any fingerprint, a “private entity” must provide the subject or “the subject’s legally authorized representative” with certain written information and obtain the consent of the subject or authorized representative, 740 ILCS 14/15(b). The private entity must make available to the public a protocol for retaining and handling biometric data and follow rules regarding the destruction of the data. Private entities must protect biometric information from disclosure. Both Southwest and United Airlines maintain timekeeping systems that require workers to clock in and out with their fingerprints. Plaintiffs contend that the airlines implemented these systems in violation of the Act. The airlines contend that the plaintiffs’ unions consented. Plaintiffs argued that a judge should resolve their contentions. The airlines claimed that resolution belongs to an adjustment board under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), 45 U.S.C. 151–88, which applies to air carriers. The Seventh Circuit held that dispute about the interpretation or administration of a collective bargaining agreement must be resolved by an adjustment board under the RLA. Unions in the air transportation business are the workers’ exclusive bargaining agents. Illinois cannot and did not remove a topic from the union’s purview. Its statute provides that a worker or an authorized agent may receive necessary notices and provide consent. Whether the unions did consent or grant authority through a management-rights clause, is a question for an adjustment board. View "Miller v. Southwest Airlines Co." on Justia Law

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Williams, age 17, was struck by a train while he and his friends were running away from a police officer. He sued the railway. The district court held, on summary judgment, that Williams was barred from recovery by Indiana law because he was more than 50% at fault for the accident. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The Indiana Comparative Fault Act bars recovery in actions based on fault if the claimant’s fault exceeds 50% of the total fault, IND. CODE 34-51-2. No fact-finder could reasonably conclude that Williams bore 50% or less of the relative fault. Video evidence plainly shows that the train’s horn and bells were sounding and that its lights were on. The gate was down, with lights that faced the young men, and those lights were flashing. View "Williams v. Norfolk Southern Corp." on Justia Law

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Ruark was working for Union Pacific, using a hydraulic rail drill. Ruark was involved connecting the drill to the hydraulic lines and used the machine to drill several holes without noticing any leaking fluid or other malfunction. As he drilled the last hole, Ruark reached down to turn the drill off. Hot fluid sprayed over him, including in his eyes. Ruark declined medical attention. The supervisor sent him home to clean up. Ruark returned the following day, but did not do much work, because, he claims, “it hurt too bad.” Ruark saw his regular nurse practitioner the next day, for “sinus and stomach problems.” Ruark did not return to work because he was convicted of a felony unrelated to the accident. Ruark sued under the Federal Employers Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. 51-60. Ruark’s prison sentence interrupted his trial preparation. The judge denied a motion for a continuance because the case had been pending for almost three years, Ruark had been well represented by his initial counsel, and Ruark's incarceration did not justify reopening exhausted deadlines and allowing Ruark to begin discovery anew. The judge allowed Ruark’s trial testimony by video deposition and deposition of Ruark’s treating physician. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the rejection of Ruark’s theory of negligence based on res ipsa loquitur. That doctrine requires that the defendant was in control of the instrumentality that caused the injury and that the plaintiff was not also negligent; those conditions were not met. A jury could not assume that “the matter spoke for itself.” The court did not abuse its discretion by refusing to grant a continuance. View "Ruark v. Union Pacific Railroad Co." on Justia Law

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Kopplin, a former train conductor, brought claims of negligence and negligence per se against the Wisconsin Central railroad under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act, 45 U.S.C. 51, alleging that Kopplin injured his elbow in trying to operate a broken railroad switch on January 24, 2014. The district court granted the railroad summary judgment because Kopplin could not prove that the broken switch caused his injury. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. A video of the incident shows no immediate signs of injury and Kopplin never mentioned any pain to his coworkers until two hours later. He had continued to perform other physical tasks. Kopplin’s sole causation expert conceded, in a deposition, that he knew so little about Kopplin’s job that it would be mere speculation to say throwing a switch even could cause the elbow injury and that he did not investigate whether Kopplin’s other physical activities could have caused his renewed elbow problems. That expert later provided an affidavit in which he definitively stated that the January 24 incident caused the elbow injury, explaining that the nature of the injury was so clear that there was no need to even consider other potential causes. The judge refused to consider the affidavit because it contradicted sworn deposition testimony. View "Kopplin v. Wisconsin Central Limited" on Justia Law

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Ward injured his shoulder and back when his seat collapsed in the train he was operating. Ward is a U.S. resident who is employed by a U.S. railroad, normally covered by the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. 51. Because Ward’s seat collapsed across the border in Ontario, the FELA does not apply. Instead, Ward pursued his tort claims under state common law. The district court rejected Ward’s claims by holding that another federal law, the Locomotive Boiler Inspection Act (LIA), 49 U.S.C. 20701, preempted all state tort law remedies for injuries caused by locomotive equipment. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The federal railroad-safety statutes left plaintiff one path that is viable and not preempted: He could assert state-law tort claims against the defendants that borrow the applicable standards of care from the federal LIA and its regulations governing the safety of locomotive equipment. Plaintiff pursued that viable theory in the district court, but, on appeal, waived any claim based on this theory. View "Ward v. Soo Line Railroad Co." on Justia Law

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United Airlines pilot instructors sued their union, ALPA, alleging that ALPA had breached its duty of fair representation in its allocation of a retroactive pay settlement among different groups of pilots. The district court dismissed the case. The Seventh Circuit reversed. A claim of discrimination or bad faith must rest on more than a showing that a union’s actions treat different groups of employees differently and must be based on more than the discriminatory impact of the union’s otherwise rational decision to compromise. The Instructors sufficiently and plausibly pleaded that ALPA acted in bad faith in its allocation of retroactive pay between the line pilots and pilot instructors. A union may not make decisions “solely for the benefit of a stronger, more politically favored group over a minority group.” The plaintiffs have alleged that pilot instructors make up a minority of ALPA’s membership and that ALPA acted with the intent to appease its majority membership, the line pilots, after a lengthy and contentious CBA negotiation. View "Bishop v. Air Line Pilots Association, International" on Justia Law

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Allied contracted to ship railroad ties with Wisconsin Central’s parent company, Canadian National, providing that demurrage would begin to accrue after two days of unloading time. Rail carriers are statutorily required to impose demurrage charges when rail cars are detained beyond the time the tariff allows for loading or unloading. Wisconsin Central also entered into an agreement with TiEnergy, which would receive the ties at its Wisconsin facility; grind them for sale to Xcel, which would burn them to generate power; and provide Allied with proof that the ties had been incinerated in an environmentally safe manner. Allied listed TiEnergy as the consignee on all bills of lading. After receiving the ties, TiEnergy unloaded, ground, and sold them. Approximately 100 rail cars used to ship the ties remained on the sidetrack beyond the two-day unloading period. Canadian National billed TiEnergy for demurrage. TiEnergy said that it had not agreed to be identified as the consignee and could not be held responsible. Wisconsin Central sued TiEnergy, seeking to recover approximately $100,000 in demurrage. TiEnergy sought indemnification or contribution from Allied. The district court granted Wisconsin Central and Allied summary judgment. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The only conclusion a juror could reasonably draw from the undisputed facts is that TiEnergy had both control of and an interest in the ties. View "Wisconsin Central Limited v. Tienergy, LLC" on Justia Law

Posted in: Transportation Law
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In 2007, Canadian National Railway (CN) sought approval from the Surface Transportation Board of its acquisition of the EJ & E rail line near Chicago. The Board considered the impact of the acquisition on 112 railroad crossings throughout the area, including the intersection at U.S. Highway 14 in Barrington. Crossings projected to be “substantially affected” were eligible for mitigation measures imposed by the Board as a condition to its approval, up to and including grade separation between the roadway and rail line. The Board approved CN’s acquisition, finding that U.S. 14 would neither be substantially affected nor warrant a grade separation. Barrington unsuccessfully petitioned the Board to reopen its decision three times. The Seventh Circuit denied a petition for review. Barrington did not present new evidence or substantially changed circumstances that mandate a different result, 49 U.S.C. 1322(c). The Board conducted an environmental review (National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. 4321–4370m‐12) and concluded that U.S. 14 did not exceed any of the three congestion thresholds for substantially affected crossings because “the major source of congestion” at U.S. 14 is “excess vehicle demand at existing major thoroughfare intersections” and “existing traffic signals in proximity to one another,” not CN’s acquisition of the EJ & E line. View "Village of Barrington v. Surface Transportation Board" on Justia Law