Steinberg: Chasing the elusive Butterfly of Responsibility

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Workers look over the area where chunks fell from the ceiling of Union Station, injuring a woman on Tuesday morning. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Follow @neilsteinbergMy 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 seventh 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?

A toughie, huh? Unlike those test-taking students, we can do some digging.


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Several pounds of concrete plunged from the ceiling above the Union Station track platforms and struck Hilda Piell, 48, of Northbrook on Monday. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Several pounds of concrete plunged from the ceiling above the Union Station track platforms and struck Hilda Piell, 48, of Northbrook on Monday. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Metra shrugs off responsibility: “You’ll have to talk to Amtrak, they own Union Station,” said spokesman Michael Gillis.

Amtrak shrugs off responsibility: “It is the responsibility of the third-party property owners to maintain the property over the tracks,” Amtrak said in a statement.

Then, in the same breath, Amtrak has a change of heart, like a pedestrian who passes a bum then wheels around and hands him a dollar: Despite having no legal responsibility, “Amtrak has brought in an independent contractor to continue inspections and reinforce overhead protections, where appropriate, to immediately secure the area for the safety of passengers and the general public.”

This act of charity is being performed, Amtrak reveals, “in the interest of public safety.” Just as closing the entire Madison Street entrance Thursday until further notice was done “out of an abundance of caution.”

But why isn’t the legally responsible party footing the bill?

Callahan Capital Properties has a fabulously glitzy website touting its 160 million square feet of properties radiating dazzling brilliance. I thought perhaps that suddenly finding themselves in league with a slumlord covering his face with his fedora against the pop of flashbulbs as he hustles down the steps of the courthouse after being ordered to fix the radiators in his neglected buildings would raise some kind of alarm.

“Our thoughts are with the impacted commuter and we wish for a speedy recovery,” reads the Callahan response. “We are working closely with Amtrak and other parties to assess the situation and passenger safety at Union Station.”

“We are working closely with Amtrak.” What could that possibly mean?

“That’s a great question,” said Chelsea Kopta, Amtrak’s spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. “I need to check back on that.”

No doubt. And here, I promise, we will draw the veil. Identifying negligent parties in legal matters, chasing the Butterfly of Responsibility, while those involved duck behind the scenery is one reason law is so expensive and time consuming. My wife, let the record show, became a decent hunt-and-peck typist. And me, whenever the subject of law comes up, I like to point out that when Hamlet is listing the reasons to kill himself, “the law’s delay” is right up there at No. 2, immediately after “the pangs of disprized love.”

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