The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated an Indiana District Court’s grant of summary judgment and remanded the case so the court could determine what right a company has to receive compensation for its vandalized railroad cars.
In CSX Transportation Inc. v. Appalachian Railcar Services Inc., No. 06-3430, CSX brought suit in the Southern District to recover payment it made to Appalachian Railcar Services (ARS) for damaged railcars. CSX believed the 13 railcars derailed on CSX-owned track, making them liable for any damages; CSX paid ARS to replace 12 of the cars and repair one. Later, CSX reviewed the payments it made to ARS and determined the derailment didn’t occur on track they owned. The owner of the track still has not been determined.
CSX filed a lawsuit to recover the money it paid to ARS, contending the payments constituted unjust enrichment because they were made on the basis of a mistake of fact. The District Court granted ARS’ motion for summary judgment based on the voluntary-payment doctrine.
In Indiana, the voluntary-payment doctrine states that “money voluntarily paid in the face of a recognized uncertainty as to the existence or extent of the payor’s obligation to the recipient may not be recovered, on the ground of ‘mistake,’ merely because the payment is subsequently revealed to have exceeded the true amount of the underlying obligation.”
The District Court held that the voluntary-payment doctrine barred recovery by CSX because it paid ARS in the face of a recognized uncertainty, the amount of liability owed. The court reasoned a certainty of liability would have allowed CSX to simply send ARS a check for the amount of damages, rather than asking ARS about the value of the damaged cars.
Judge Ilana Rovner wrote that because neither CSX nor ARS regarded CSX’s responsibility for the derailment as uncertain, whether the payment embodied the possibility that CSX did not own the track is a fact question that precludes summary judgment on the basis of the voluntary-payment doctrine. The District Court focused on the doctrine and did not consider other arguments raised by either party. The 7th Circuit cannot determine if ARS was actually entitled to the payment by CSX or another party, nor can it determine whether ARS’s reasonable reliance on CSX caused ARS to forego the opportunity to investigate the accident or discover for itself if it was entitled to payment.