Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff received a free pass to ride on Defendant railroad company’s train. During the ride, Plaintiff suffered personal injuries and later sued the Defendant for negligence based on the injuries sustained. Defendant moved for summary judgment on the grounds that Plaintiff had not shown a genuine issue as to whether Defendant engaged in willful or wanton conduct.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Upon a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Procedure, the moving party must present admissible evidence that demonstrates that there is no factual issue in dispute. If such evidence is not rebutted by the non-moving party, the moving party is entitled to summary judgment.
Issue. Based on the terms of Plaintiff’s free pass releasing Defendant from liability for any injuries sustained by Plaintiff, must Plaintiff prove that Defendant’s conduct was willful and wanton? Assuming that Plaintiff must prove Defendant engaged in willful and wanton conduct, has Defendant satisfied the standard for summary judgment in its favor on this issue?
Held. Yes to both issues. Defendant’s motion for summary judgment sustained. Since there is no state case law, the court looks to the United States Supreme Court’s interpretation of a similar federal statute. Under federal law, a carrier can contract to absolve itself of liability for injury caused by its negligent behavior, but cannot absolve itself of liability for willful and wanton misconduct. Defendant presented affidavits that: (1) the derailment was caused by a crack in the rail, (2) the crack in the rail was not visible when it was inspected, (3) the kind of crack in the rail is prevalent in both new and old tracks, and (4) the rail was inspected the day before and the crack was not seen by the inspector. Plaintiff admitted these facts. Plaintiff argued that the rails were old, thus creating a reasonable probability that the rails would break. Furthermore, Plaintiff argued that Defendant would not replace these rails because having the train derail would be cheaper than replacing them. Plaintiff, however, has not demonstrated a material issue of fact as to whether Defendant engaged in willful or wanton conduct because Plaintiff has not shown that Defendant was conscious of the particular defect in the rail that injured Plaintiff.
Discussion. The court’s decision illustrates the burdens that the moving and non-moving parties face on a motion for summary judgment. The moving party must present evidence sufficient to show that no fact is disputed and they are entitled to judgment in their favor. If the moving party meets this burden, then the non-moving party must rebut this with evidence showing that there is a disputed fact to avoid summary judgment.