916 F.2d 1174 (7th Cir. 1990)
Defendant was a manufacturer of chemicals, including acrylonitrile, a flammable and highly toxic chemical. Plaintiff was a switching railroad line. Defendant loaded 20,000 gallons of acrylonitrile into a railroad tank car it had leased. The next day, a train picked up the car to bring to one of defendant’s other plants. The train carried the car to plaintiff’s railroad yard in the Chicago metropolitan to be switched to a different train. Several hours after the car arrived in the rail yard, plaintiff’s employees noticed fluid gushing from the bottom outlet of the car, which had a broken lid. Nearby homes were evacuated and after two hours, the line’s supervisor of equipment was able to stop the leak, which had released a quarter of the acrylonitrile. The Illinois Department of Environmental Protection ordered plaintiff to take decontamination measures.
The district court granted plaintiff summary judgment on its strict liability claim and dismissed its negligence claim.
Is the shipper of a hazardous chemical by rail strictly liable for the consequences of a spill or other accident to the shipment en route?
Holding / Rule
(Posner) No. Reversed and remanded for further proceedings on plaintiff’s negligence claim.
Several factors need to be considered in deciding whether an activity is abnormally dangerous and the actor therefore strictly liable. If the hazards of an activity can be avoided through the exercise of due care, there is no need to impose strict liability. But when exercise of due care cannot adequately control the risk, a strict liability regime gives the actor incentive “to experiment with methods of preventing accidents that involve not greater exertions of care, assumed to be futile, but instead relocating, changing, or reducing (perhaps to the vanishing point) the activity giving rise to the accident.” The greater the risk of the accident, and the greater the costs of an accident if one occurs, “the more we want the actor to consider the possibility of making accident-reducing activity changes” and so the stronger the case for strict liability. The case for strict liability is weakened if the activity is extremely common because “it is unlikely either that its hazards are perceived as great or that there is no technology of care available to minimize them.”
Here, there is no reason to believe a negligence regime is not adequate to “remedy and deter, at reasonable cost, the accidental spillage of acrylonitrile from rail cars.” The rail transportation of acrylonitrile is not abnormally dangerous—the risk of a spill is negligible if the rail car is properly maintained. The leak here was not caused by the inherent properties of acrylonitrile, but by carelessness. Although the chemical shipment passed through a major metropolitan area, that is the nature of the railroad hub-and-spoke system and rerouting would likely not be feasible except at prohibitive cost, and may even raise the probability of accident due to longer journeys and poorer track. Moreover, defendant here was not even the active transporter of the chemical, but merely the manufacturer and shipper.