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Indiana Harbor Belt R.R. v. American Cyanamid Co.

Citation: 17 ELR 21163
No. No. 80 C 1857, 663 F. Supp. 635/(N.D. Ill., 06/03/1987)

The court holds that shipping toxic acrylonitrile by rail through a residential area of metropolitan Chicago is an abnormally dangerous activity for which defendant is strictly liable. The freight yard where the accident occurred was adjacent to a residential neighborhood, and the spill forced the evacuation of numerous families and contaminated the local water supply. The proximity of toxic materials to so many persons' homes weighs in favor of imposing strict liability. In addition, the very dangerous nature of acrylonitrile means that there was a great risk of serious harm from its transportation, even if the likelihood of a spill was small. Moreover, shipment of acrylonitrile is not a matter of common usage. Although shipment occurs frequently throughout the country, the number of persons engaged in it is small. Finally, the local value of the shipment of acrylonitrile does not exceed the local risk. Unlike some other parts of the country, the Chicago area has little economic interest in the chemical.

The court also holds that plaintiff's failure to prove that defendant's actions caused the leak is irrelevant to the issue of defendant's strict liability. Plaintiff has shown that it was harmed by a shipment that was sent by defendant. Defendant has failed to show that harm has resulted from any other source, or that anyone else contributed to plaintiff's harm in a way that would excuse defendant's liability. The court holds that evidence of plaintiff's possible negligence is irrelevant because it does not amount to a showing of an intervening or superseding proximate cause. Moreover, there is no evidence of any misuse or misconduct on plaintiff's part that would reduce defendant's liability. The court holds that there is no evidence to support the defense of assumption of risk. Assumption of risk must be both voluntary and knowing. Plaintiff, a common carrier, probably had no choice but to accept the acrylonitrile shipment. And plaintiff had no knowledge of the defects in the tank car that led to the spill. Mere knowledge of the toxicity of the contents of the car, or negligence in failing to discover the defects in the car, does not constitute assumption of risk.

Counsel for Plaintiff
Anna M. Kelly
175 W. Jackson Blvd., Suite 1460, Chicago IL 60604
(312) 454-3868

Counsel for Defendant
Thomas D. Allen, Ann C. Petersen
Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon
One IBM Plaza, Suite 3000, Chicago IL 60611
(312) 222-0400