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

Decision Date03 June 1987
Docket NumberNo. 80 C 1857.,80 C 1857.
Citation662 F. Supp. 635
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Illinois
PartiesINDIANA HARBOR BELT RAILROAD COMPANY, Plaintiff, v. AMERICAN CYANAMID COMPANY and Missouri Pacific Railroad Company, Defendants.


Anna M. Kelly, Indiana Harbor Belt R. Co., Chicago, Ill., for plaintiff.

Thomas A. Allen, Ann C. Petersen, Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon, Chicago, Ill., for defendants.


MORAN, District Judge.

En route from one of defendant American Cyanamid Company's (Cyanamid) plants to another, a railroad tank car filled with acrylonitrile, a flammable and toxic liquid chemical, sprang a leak. Between 2,000 and 4,000 gallons of the chemical spilled out in plaintiff Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad's (IHB) Blue Island freight yard in the Chicago suburbs. The spill forced the temporary evacuation of about 3,000 people. It also contaminated not only the ground, but also the water beneath it, thus threatening the water supply for nearby Calumet Park, Riverdale and other communities.

Simply put, this lawsuit exists because Cyanamid does not want to reimburse IHB for the nearly $1 million in cleanup costs for that chemical spill. IHB's motion for summary judgment, which is now before the court, asks us to find that transporting acrylonitrile is an abnormally dangerous activity for which Cyanamid is strictly liable. Determination of whether or not an activity is abnormally dangerous requires a consideration of several factors, but Illinois law, following 3 Restatement (Second) of Torts § 520 (1977), puts heavy emphasis on the relationship between the activity and the place where it is carried on. We need not decide that shipping acrylonitrile is at all times and places abnormally dangerous to decide this case; shipping it through the Chicago metropolitan area was, and IHB's motion is granted.


Acrylonitrile is a chemical with a number of commercial uses, notably as the raw material for the acrylic fibers used in many types of clothing. On January 2, 1979, Cyanamid loaded some 20,000 gallons of acrylonitrile into its car NATX 22779 for shipment from its plant at Avondale, Louisiana to its plant at Warners, New Jersey. Cyanamid leased car NATX 22779 from North American Car Corporation. Under the terms of the lease Cyanamid had the responsibility of inspecting the car for defects or damage, and either making running repairs or returning the car to North American for repairs.

The Missouri Pacific Railroad (MoPac) picked up the car on January 3 and carried it to the Chicago area, after which it was scheduled to make the rest of its trip via Conrail. Apparently the MoPac and Conrail lines do not directly intersect. In any case, under an arrangement worked out in 1969, MoPac leaves cars slated for pickup by Conrail on the tracks of the IHB in its Blue Island yard. The IHB does not actually handle the cars; Conrail comes on to the IHB tracks to move the cars on to its own lines. However, the IHB collects a small fee for the use of its tracks. A MoPac engine and crew left the train containing car NATX 22779 on IHB track no. 7 on January 9, 1979 at about 8:40 a.m. IHB was notified that 27 cars in the 91-car train contained flammable materials, and received a consist describing the contents of each of those cars. A routine walking inspection of the train by IHB employees revealed no problems.

NATX 22779 has both top and bottom outlets. The bottom outlet consists of a reducer pipe, plug and outlet cap, with the cap attached to the car by a chain. The plug and cap do not, however, necessarily play a major role in holding liquids inside the car. Rather, that job falls at least equally to the bottom outlet valve, which is opened and closed with a turning device located inside a box on top of the car.

At about 12:30 p.m. on January 9, two IHB employees noticed a substantial flow of liquid coming out of the bottom outlet of NATX 22779. On closer inspection, they saw that the reducer had completely broken off at the point where it narrows from about 8 inches in diameter to about 5 inches. The bottom portion of the reducer, and the plug and cap assembly, were dangling from the car on the chain attached to the cap. The two employees briefly attempted to stop the flow by replacing the cap, but failed. IHB worker safety regulations prohibited climbing on top of the car to gain access to the valve control since no. 7 was a live track. The Riverdale Fire Department, when notified of the leak, ordered the car cut out of the train and moved to a siding.

Once that was accomplished, IHB workers attempted to stop the leak by going on top of the car to close the bottom outlet valve. Cyanamid had sealed the box covering the valve control upon loading the car, and that seal was unbroken. Nevertheless, on opening the box, the workers found the valve open, one nut missing from the control mechanism and the other nut loose, bolts missing, and a loose packing gland. It took about a 180 degree turn of the wheel to close the valve, after which the leak stopped. Later inspections revealed that the valve rod was out of position and had play in it, and that a cotter pin was missing. Plugs for two other valves were either missing or loose. As for the bottom outlet itself, the reducer proved to have been welded at some time, and the assembly had broken at the point of the weld. These discoveries provided evidence which could explain how the car could start leaking while sitting in the yard. The bottom outlet valve could either have been left open or have worked its way open during shipment. The downward pressure of 20,000 gallons of liquid on the outlet cap then would have eventually proved too much for the weld at some point. Such pressure could have broken the outlet cap assembly whether the car was moving or standing still.

Acrylonitrile is a highly flammable, poisonous liquid which is also toxic when inhaled. See Hebel v. Conrail, Inc., 475 N.E.2d 652, 655 (Ind.1985). Either ingestion or inhalation can cause cancer. 29 C.F.R. § 1910.1045(p); Cullender v. BASF Wyandotte Corp., 146 Mich.App. 423, 381 N.W.2d 737, 739 (1985). Applicable Department of Transportation regulations vigorously restrict its shipment. For example, while air cargo flights may carry ten gallons of gasoline, they may carry only one quart of acrylonitrile. Acrylonitrile has a flash point of 30 degrees F, meaning that at a temperature of 30 degrees or above it "will quickly evaporate and form a combustible mixture which will ignite in a flash if brought into contact with a spark." Ruggeri v. Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co., 63 Ill.App.3d 525, 527-528, 380 N.E.2d 445, 447, 20 Ill.Dec. 467, 469 (5th Dist.1978) (describing flash point of an adhesive liquid). When working on the tank car to stop the leak, IHB personnel used brass tools to avoid sparking.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency considers any concentration of acrylonitrile over 10 ppm in soil or ground water to be highly unsafe. Initial readings taken in the ground water beneath the IHB yard indicated a concentration of 8,000 ppm. Cleanup thus required pumping out the ground water and replacing it. Documents IHB submits indicate that it spent $981,022.75 on cleanup.

I. Negligence and Strict Liability

IHB's complaint includes both a negligence and a strict liability count against Cyanamid. Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad v. American Cyanamid Co., 517 F.Supp. 314, 315 (N.D.Ill.1981). This court cannot help but wonder why IHB does not assert its negligence count for purposes of this motion. Summary judgment for a plaintiff in a negligence action is rare, but not impossible. One is liable in negligence for damages caused by failure to observe the standard of care which a reasonable prudent person would have taken. If the undisputed facts are such that no rational jury could find that the standard of care has been met, then summary judgment can and should be granted. Marsden v. Patane, 380 F.2d 489, 492-493 (5th Cir.1967).

On the surface, at least, IHB would appear to have a very solid claim for negligence against Cyanamid. The more dangerous the activity, the more care a person must take to be reasonable and prudent. Nelson v. Commonwealth Edison Co., 124 Ill.App.3d 655, 667-668, 465 N.E.2d 513, 522-523, 80 Ill.Dec. 401, 410-411 (2d Dist. 1984); German v. Illinois Power Co., 115 Ill.App.3d 977, 984-985, 451 N.E.2d 903, 908-909, 71 Ill.Dec. 749, 754-755 (5th Dist. 1983); see also Krull v. Keene Corp., 601 F.Supp. 547 (N.D.Ill.1985). Obviously, acrylonitrile is a dangerous chemical. If it leaks out of its container it can explode, contaminate soil and water, and give off toxic fumes. Given the law of gravity, it is difficult to see how a reasonable and prudent manufacturer could ship it in a tank car with both a loose and defective bottom outlet valve control, and a pressure-bearing weld on the bottom outlet assembly.

Moreover, many of the parties' arguments address questions more relevant to a negligence action than to strict liability. IHB in its briefs reminds the court again and again of the poor condition of the car Cyanamid used for its acrylonitrile shipment, as if IHB needed to show that Cyanamid was at fault for the leak in the car. Cyanamid joins the battle on similar ground. Since we do not know exactly how the car came to be leaking, it contends, an issue of fact must exist about who is legally responsible for damage from the spill — as if the leak needs to be someone's fault before liability can be imposed. Cyanamid also argues that IHB should not recover the full amount of its damages because it failed to discover or stop the leak sooner than it did, as if the legal task here is comparing the degrees of negligence on each side.

However, IHB has chosen to move for summary judgment only on the strict liability count. For that theory of liability we do not ask who was at fault or in what proportion. Rather, we ask whether ...

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5 cases
  • Indiana Harbor Belt R. Co. v. American Cyanamid Co.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit
    • November 7, 1988
    ...would impose strict liability for injuries resulting from the transportation of acrylonitrile in bulk through a Chicago residential area." Id. at 644. On June 29, 1987, Cyanamid filed a motion requesting that the district court certify its order on count II for immediate appeal under 28 U.S......
  • Indiana Harbor Belt R. Co. v. American Cyanamid Co.
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    ...the strict liability count, 517 F.Supp. 314 (N.D.Ill.1981), the switching line moved for summary judgment on that count--and won. 662 F.Supp. 635 (N.D.Ill.1987). The judge directed the entry of judgment for $981,022.75 under Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(b) to permit Cyanamid to take an immediate appeal ......
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    ...coaster is defective."). Summary judgment is, in turn, appropriate on this claim.5Accord Indiana Harbor Belt R. Co. v. Am. Cyanamid Co., 662 F. Supp. 635, 639 (N.D. Ill. 1987) (Posner, J.) ("Summary judgment for a plaintiff in a negligence action is rare, but not impossible."). Plaintiff's ......
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