Illinois Appellate Court Rules Freight Broker Not Liable for $18M Jury Award in Teen’s Brain Injury Case

A freight broker is not liable for an $18 million jury award to the mother of a teenage boy who suffered a brain injury when he was struck by a truck, an Illinois appellate court ruled Wednesday.

A panel of the 1st District of the Illinois Appellate Court reversed a decision by the Cook County Circuit Court to deny a motion by Alliance Shippers to be removed as a defendant in a personal injury lawsuit against Dakota Lines and its driver, Gordon Lewis. The appellate panel ruled that Alliance did not exercise sufficient control over the trucking company to establish an “agency relationship” that would make it jointly liable for the accident.

“Alliance exercised little, if any control over Dakota’s and its drivers’ performance of the transportation work, as opposed to control over the result of the assigned task or matters ancillary to the work to be performed,” the opinion says.

Gustavo Cornejo Jr. was 17 in 2016 when he was struck by Dakota’s semi-truck while fixing a vehicle along side Illinois Route 394 south of Chicago. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Cornejo was trying to fix faulty lights on a landscaping trailer when Lewis drove off the road and struck him from behind, throwing him 30 feet and a causing traumatic brain injury that put him in a coma for two weeks.

Cornejo’s mother, Francine, filed a lawsuit on her son’s behalf against Lewis, Dakota and Alliance. The freight broker filed a motion to be dismissed from the action but the trial court denied it. Cornejo’s lawyers argued Dakota was Alliance’s agent because the broker controlled what trailers it used, what loads it picked up and how long the deliveries should take. Alliance also required the trucking company to use a specific electronic data interchange to communicate and required it to meet performance standards and set requirements for seal integrity, freight bills and cargo security.

A Cook County jury returned an $18,115,750 verdict in favor of Cornejo, plus $466,161.20 in prejudgment interest. The jury also answered a special interrogatory by finding that Alliance was Dakota’s agent at the time of the crash.

Alliance filed a motion after the judgment that again sought its removal as a defendant. The company appealed after the request was rejected by the trial court.

The appellate panel said that Illinois courts have, on occasion, found that freight brokers acted as agents and were liable for damages caused by highway accidents. In 2013, for example, the 1st District held that Dean Foods had an agency relationship with a shipper because it required the trucking company’s employees to wear Dean logos on their trucks and uniforms and owned the trailers that were used for deliveries.

The appellate panel said Alliance and Dakota Lines were not so closely intertwined. The opinion said Illinois courts have rejected arguments that the use of on-time delivery performance standards and a requirement that shipping companies use a designated electronic systems to communicate as a basis to find an agency relationship.

“Alliance did not pay Dakota’s drivers and withhold taxes from their pay; hire, train or fire the drivers; dispatch or speak to the drivers; control the drivers’ routes or provide them with tools, equipment, or materials; or own the tractors or trailers the drivers used,” the opinion said. “It is undisputed that Dakota and Alliance adhered to the terms of their agreement, which provided that Dakota had full control over its personnel and would perform services as an independent contractor.”

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision not to dismiss Alliance as a defendant. The decision does not affect the judgment against Dakota or Lewis, the court said.

This article was first published in Insurance Journal.

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