Friday, September 16, 2016

Chasing the elusive Butterfly of Responsibility

     If this topic seems familiar, it began as yesterday's blog post, but when I got to work Thursday morning, the question still hung there, with colleagues from fellow reporters to Mike, who supervises the coffee room, asking me who was responsible. (If you're coming late to the game, this issue began Wednesday with a chunk of concrete falling on a commuter's head). I didn't solve the mystery of why the party legally obligated to make the repairs isn't doing so. But I sure tried. Late in the day Union Station announced it was shutting down the Madison Street entrance indefinitely. I didn't know whether to feel proud or guilty. 

     My wife never learned to touch type. In the mid-1970s, a young woman learning to type seemed to be punching her ticket for a life of secretarial work. I, on the other hand, wanted to be a writer, so I sat in a 7th grade classroom listening to a voice on a 33 rpm record intone, “F F F, J J J,” while dutifully tapping keys on a Royal manual typewriter.

     It also meant I typed all my beloved’s law school papers while she was barreling through the Chicago Kent College of Law. (All save one; I made her find a typist once, out of pure contrariness). Still, typing those papers gave me an appreciation for the law, for its storytelling qualities. I thought of those complex take-home exam questions this week when concrete chunks plunging from the plaza above Union Station drew me into the world of legal responsibility.
     Pencils ready? Then let’s begin.
     1) A commuter railroad delivers passengers into a station it does not own. That station is owned by another, national railroad. But the national railroad does not own the air rights above the station, secured by real estate investors constructing an office building in the mid-1960s. All this takes place in Chicago.
     If a chunk of concrete falls from the plaza belonging to the real estate investor’s office building and hits one of the commuter railroad’s passengers, who is responsible for this tort?
     a) The commuter railroad, Metra;
     b) the national railroad, Amtrak;
     c) the owners of the office building, 10 S. Riverside Plaza, a real estate investment firm called Callahan Capital Properties
     d) the city of Chicago?

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  1. In either the movie "The Paper Chase" or the TV show that followed, one of Professor Kingsfield's cases he used in his class was about a sack of flour that fell out of the window in a London warehouse & hit someone. That was from the 1600s I believe! Someone was hit & injured by the sack of flour & sued the warehouse owner, who disclaimed responsibility.
    The ruling was that people on the public way had a right to use it without something falling out of a window & the injured person won the case & it's been a precedent ever since. Or at least if that was a real case, I don't know if the writer made it up or not.
    So by that ruling, it's obvious that Callahan Properties is the responsible party for fixing the train shed roof & to do so to Amtrak's specifications & satisfaction.
    But Amtrak just doesn't seem to give a damn!

    1. Amtrak doesn't seem to give a damn?

      If you are driving to the grocery store in your shiny new Hupmobile and are involved in an accident on the road outside the store, what kind of damn would you expect the grocer to give? Just because Union Station is the destination of the commuters doesn't mean the track or station owners are required to maintain the buildings all along the way.

      Amtrak and Metra are likely working tirelessly to get the station platforms open again, hiring inspectors and structural engineers to ensure the building owners aren't tossing sacks of flour out the window, and I am sure the PR machine is working overtime to reassure fellow travellers, but maintenance of their neighbor's building is not their damn to give.

    2. Ah, but we are not privy (and not likely to be) to the contracts/leases between the various parties. Could be that Amtrak or Metra or even the City of Chicago agreed to be responsible.

      Certainly no need to invoke "res ipse loquitur."


  2. Another area of culpability that will doubtless be pursued by various lawyers is the notion that shaking associated with their nearby road construction caused the cracking and eventual failure of sections of the floor of 10 Riverside/wall of the plenum/platform ceiling.

  3. Of course the complete renovation of the plaza in front of those buildings a few years ago could have weakened the underlying foundation as well.

  4. @Noonan:
    Actually, they are required to maintain the stations & tracks.


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