Railroad’s Time To Appeal Not Tolled By Post-Trial Request For Setoff

Railroad employee Anthony Williams was injured at work. He sued BNSF Railway, his employer, and got a judgment for $2.6 million.

Claiming there were more than 40 errors at the trial, BNSF asked the trial court to decrease or throw out the verdict. The company also asked for a setoff “in the amount of taxes payable as a result of lost wages awarded to Williams.”

The trial court denied BNSF’s request to throw out the verdict, but reserved a ruling on the “tax issue.” A written order order was not issued; nor did the court request one; nor apparently did the parties offer to submit one.

About six weeks later BNSF made an emergency request to the trial court to file additional authority to support the earlier request to decrease [for the amount BNSF paid for Williams’s disability] or to throw out the verdict.

When the parties returned to court about four weeks after that, the trial court denied BNSF’s requests to change or dismiss the verdict, or for a setoff for the taxes payable.

BNSF appealed the denial trial court rulings – the one denying the 40-plus claims of error and the one denying the decrease or setoff. Its Notice of Appeal was filed within 30 days of the trial court’s last order, but more than 70 days after the oral ruling that denied BNSF’s 40-plus-errors request. Williams asked the appellate court to dismiss the entire appeal. Williams argued the appellate court did not have jurisdiction because BNSF appealed too late.

The First District Illinois Appellate Court agreed with Williams. The appeal from the 40-plus-errors order had to be filed within 30 days from the oral ruling. And because BNSF’s request for a setoff did not attack the judgment —“a request for a setoff seeks to satisfy, not modify, the judgment” — it did not toll the time to appeal.

Nor did BNSF’s emergency request make a difference. The trial court lost jurisdiction over the verdict-decrease issue 30 days after the initial oral ruling, and could not give itself jurisdiction again by reiterating its earlier order.

The appellate court also ruled that the lack of a written order following the trial court’s first ruling did not help BNSF. “Given that the trial court never required the submission of a written order regarding the denial of BNSF’s posttrial motion, the oral ruling on that motion was therefore final on April 18, 2012,
the date it was entered into the record.”

In the end, the appellate court dismissed the entire appeal. Read the whole opinion, Williams v. BNSF Railway Co., 2013 IL App (1st) 121901 (9/25/13), by clicking here.