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

Melissa A. Hale

ProfessorMelissa A. Hale

CaseCast "What you need to know"

CaseCast –  "What you need to know"

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Indiana Harbor Belt R.R. Co. v. American Cyanamid Co
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    Brief Fact Summary. The Defendant, American Cyanamid Co. (Defendant) manufactured a dangerous chemical, which was spilled during transportation. The Plaintiff, Indiana Harbor Belt R.R. Co. (Plaintiff) sued the Defendant, claiming that the transportation of the chemical was an abnormally dangerous activity.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The determination of whether an activity is abnormally dangerous depends on the application of several factors, including if accidents cannot be prevented by the exercise of ordinary due care.

    Facts. Defendant was a major manufacturer of chemicals, including acrylonitrile. Acrylonitrile is flammable at temperatures above 30 degrees Fahrenheit, is highly toxic, and possibly carcinogenic. Defendant leased railroad cars to transport acrylonitrile to purchasers. When one of these cars arrived at the Blue Island yard just south of Chicago, it was noticed that acrylonitrile was gushing out of a bottom outlet on the car. Although only about of a quarter of the acrylonitrile escaped, the Illinois Department of Environmental Protection ordered the Plaintiff switching line to take decontamination measures costing $981,022.75. One count of the complaint asserted that the transportation of acrylonitrile in bulk through the Chicago metropolitan area is an abnormally dangerous activity. The trial court found that strict liability applied and granting summary judgment in favor of Plaintiff on that count.

    Issue. Is the shipper of a hazardous chemical by rail strictly liable for the consequences of a spill or other accident to the shipment?

    Held. No. Judgment reversed and remanded.
    * The question addressed here is a question of law, so no special deference is granted to the trial court conclusion. Under the Restatement [Restatement (Second) of Torts Section: 520 (1977)] six factors are considered in deciding if an activity is abnormally dangerous: (1) is the probability of the harm great; (2) is the harm that would ensue if the risk materializes great; (3) can such accidents not be prevented by the exercise of due care; (4) is the activity not a matter of common usage; (5) was the activity inappropriate to the location where it took place; (6) is the value of the activity to the community high.
    * According to the evidence, acrylonitrile is the fifty-third most hazardous chemical transported in high volume on the nation’s railroads. Therefore, the trial court’s opinion would effectively dictate strict liability for all fifty-two materials that rank higher.
    * Additionally, this Court has been given no reason for believing that a negligence standard is not adequate to remedy accidental spillage. In this case, it seems clear that the leak was caused by carelessness. Plaintiff also makes much of the fact that the spill occurred in a densely inhabited area. However, the hubs of the railroad network are generally located in metropolitan areas. Even if rerouting were feasible, it would be more appropriate to place such a burden on the carriers rather than the shippers.
    * Unlike storage cases dealing with abnormally dangerous activities, in this case it is the manufacturers, rather than the actors, who are sought to be held strictly liable. Abnormally dangerous activities are a property of activities rather than substances in the contemplation of the law.

    Discussion. Courts have ruled numerous activities abnormally dangerous in various cases, including: pile driving, crop dusting, rocket testing, fireworks displays, hazardous waste disposal, and oil wells.


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