IL Supreme Court rules employers can be liable for accidents, even if their employees aren’t negligent

The Illinois Supreme Court has ruled a jury was right to hold a Chicago company directly liable for a traffic collision, because the company told one of its drivers to haul an unsafely loaded truck despite the driver’s concerns, finding an employer can be held liable both for the acts of their employees and for their own acts.

The April 21 decision was penned by Justice Mary Jane Theis, with concurrence from Chief Justice Anne Burke and Justices Robert Carter, Rita Garman, P. Scott Neville Jr., David Overstreet and Michael Burke. The ruling favored plaintiff Fletcher McQueen in his action against Pan-Oceanic Engineering Company, of Chicago. The company is a general contractor that focuses on road construction.

According to court documents, on Aug. 17, 2012, an employee of Pan-Oceanic, Lavonta M. Green, picked up a three-ton piece of digging equipment at Patten Industries. Green said Patten workers improperly loaded the equipment onto a trailer. Green claimed he complained, but the Patten workers allegedly refused to reload it safely. Green told his supervisor, Savinder Singh, but Singh allegedly directed Green to go ahead and transport the equipment as is, but to “be safe,” court papers said.

Green purportedly was driving 40 mph when he braked, causing the trailer to swing, because of the allegedly improper loading. The trailer collided with a car driven by McQueen, injuring McQueen, according to court documents.

McQueen sued Pan-Oceanic and Green. The company acknowledged Green was its agent. In 2017, a jury found Pan-Oceanic was liable, but not Green. Pan-Oceanic was ordered to pay $163,227 in compensatory and $1 million in punitive damages to McQueen.

In a 2-1 decision, Illinois First District Appellate Court overturned the verdict, saying the jury was wrong to find the employer negligent, but not the employee. The appellate majority said such wa ruling was inconsistent.

Justice Theis said the issue before the state Supreme Court was whether Pan-Oceanic could be found to have both indirect, or vicarious, liability as Green’s employer, and direct liability for allegedly instructing Green to proceed with the improper load. Theis and her fellow Supreme Court justices said they could.

“Settled law allows a plaintiff to plead and prove multiple causes of action,” Theis wrote

Theis added: “We see no reason why a plaintiff should be precluded from seeking to hold an employer vicariously liable for its employee’s negligence, as well as directly liable for its own negligence, separate and apart from its employee’s conduct. A potentially meritorious cause of action should not be barred simply because the employer acknowledges vicarious liability for its employee’s misconduct in a separate cause of action.”

Pan-Oceanic also argued to the Supreme Court the punitive damages were not warranted, but Theis pointed to evidence supporting such damages.

“Pan-Oceanic’s president testified that Green followed the proper protocol before driving with the load” and “the jury could reasonably have concluded that Pan-Oceanic demonstrated utter indifference toward the safety of others,” Theis stated.

McQueen has been represented by Chicago lawyer Michael Rathsack.

Pan-Oceanic has been defended by Jennifer Leah Barron, of Barron Legal, of Naperville.

This article was first published in Cook County Record.

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