IL appeals panel OKs $54M jury verdict in Indiana trucking accident, even though Indiana law applied

A three-justice panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court has upheld a massive verdict against a trucking company in relation to a 2011 Interstate 65 crash, saying a trial court properly allowed both Indiana and Illinois law to apply.

The Feb. 9, 2011, incident on southbound I-65 in Jasper County, Ind., involved seven vehicles. The crashes were instigated when a vehicle driven by 88-year-old George Kallis entered southbound I-65 heading north. Most of the vehicles involved were damaged as they swerved to avoid Kallis.

But, when two semi trailers pulled to each side of the highway to avoid Kallis, Oak Lawn resident Roger Denton drove between the semis, striking the side of one of the rigs and sliding sideways into the middle of I-65, where his vehicle was rear-ended by another semi. Denton filed a lawsuit in Cook County court against the driver of the truck that rear-ended his vehicle, David Lee Johnson of South Carolina, and trucking companies Universal Am-Can and Universal Truckload Services of Michigan, which had hired Johnson to haul goods from Illinois to South Carolina.

In January 2015, a First District panel said many elements in the dispute favor using Indiana law. Justice Terrence J. Lavin wrote that appellate opinion, in which justices Michael B. Hyman and Mary Anne Mason concurred. After that opinion, a jury ordered UACL and other defendants to pay $19.2 million in compensatory damages — because all defendants were found negligent and UACL was found negligent in hiring and retaining Johnson — and $35 million in punitive damages, because the jury found UACL’s conduct to be willful and wanton.

Cook County Judge Lorna Propes denied the defendants’ post-trial motions, including a request for a new trial. The defendants then appealed, saying the trial court ignored the mandate to use Indiana law to assess liability and damages.

Lavin also wrote the opinion on that new appeal, issued Sept. 24. Concurring this time were Justices James Fitzgerald Smith and Mary Ellen Coghlan.

Lavin wrote the defendants’ displayed “flagrant disregard for the Illinois Supreme Court rules” by using factual statements “chockablock with argumentative, conclusory allegations.” He also said their “overly emphatic and inarguably hyperbolic brief failed to include the applicable standards of review for the issues raised on appeal.”

The panel also noted the plaintiffs’ lawyers appeared to use an 11-point typeface, instead of the required 12, in order to get around a requirement limiting their brief to 50 pages.

According to Lavin, “the trial court applied Indiana law to the issues of contribution liability and apportionment of fault and damages.” But “the admissibility of damages is an evidentiary issue, which, in this case, is governed by Illinois law.” Specifically, Illinois doesn’t let jurors know what rates health care providers used in billing an injured defendant.

The panel also said the record shows the jury’s punitive damages verdict was supported by the evidence, pointing to several problems with Johnson’s professional record. They noted he had also testified he was unaware of a wrong-way driver before striking Denton’s vehicle. Further, neither Indiana nor Illinois law would require a jury to apportion blame to Kallis, the panel said.

The defendants’ post-trial motion didn’t argue the $35 million punitive damages award was excessive, the panel said, meaning they forefeited the right to raise that issue on appeal. Lavin also noted “the trial court gave all instructions on Indiana law related to this singular issue.”

This article was first published by Cook County Record.

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