Torts II, Pages 750–755

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

United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, 1990

Facts:

Defendant manufactured acrylonitrile, a dangerous chemical, and shipped it on plaintiff's railroad. When it arrived in the railyard, employees noticed fluid gushing from a broken outlet on the car. The supervisor stopped the leak, but already a quarter of the flammable, toxic, and possibly carcinogenic chemical had spilled out. After a brief evacuation, the Illinois Department of Environmental Protection ordered plaintiff to take decontamination measures at a cost of $981,022.75. Plaintiff sued to recover this cost.

Procedural History:

Trial court granted summary judgment for plaintiff.

Issue:

Was the transportation of acrylonitrile an abnormally dangerous activity?

Rule:

Reasoning:

  • The spill did not occur due to some inherent property of acrylonitrile but because nobody noticed that the lid was ruptured. Reasonable care would have eliminated the risk.

  • While holding transporters strictly liable for such spills would deter from taking routes through densely populated areas, railroads must travel between hubs, and the second and third largest hubs are in East St. Louis and Chicago, both large cities in Illinois. Trying to route the large number of trains carrying hazardous materials through Illinois without passing through either city would be difficult or impossible.

    It would be even more if defendant, the shipper, was required to do it. Shippers could control where the train was sent, but it would not be reasonable to require them to know best to route trains for efficient delivery on good quality tracks while avoiding large cities. This would be easiest for those who actually handle the car, plaintiff.

  • Defendant may be able to bear the cost better. "Well, so what?" A corporation is not a person, and which company has more money is not relevant. In addition, plaintiff has very large parent corporations.

Holding:

No, the transportation was not an abnormally dangerous activity. Reversed and remanded.

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