The handwritten question from the jury arrived at 3:50 p.m.: “Can we find fault with RQM, without finding fault with Brunswick?”
That one sentence, written June 9, 2015, set off a cascade of legal events that has played out over the months since.
On Tuesday, in the most recent twist, a Cook County Circuit Court judge upheld a $25 million settlement at the center of the personal injury lawsuit.
In his ruling, Judge James N. O’Hara noted the case has “endured a long and complex procedural history.”
It all started with the brief note from the jury as it deliberated a verdict at the end of a three-week trial. At issue was whether Brunswick Corp., its boat division and RQM, a yacht company, were liable for the injuries that Scot Vandenberg suffered in a 2009 fall on a boat that left him a quadriplegic.
Brunswick lawyers contend they never learned about the note until after the settlement was reached about an hour later.
Last week, Brunswick filed a federal lawsuit, arguing that Vandenberg’s lawyer, Mark McNabola, and a judge’s clerk, Tatiana Agee, violated the company’s constitutional right to due process by hiding the contents of the note. The company argues it would not have authorized the settlement if it had known the seemingly advantageous wording of the note.
The lawsuit argues the company has spent significant money on legal expenses in the 18 months of wrangling about the validity of the settlement and the contents of the note.
But O’Hara’s ruling Tuesday was clear: All lawyers were made aware of the contents of the jury note and had the chance to participate in how to respond to the jury’s question before the settlement was reached about 10 minutes later.
“The overall impact of Judge O’Hara’s ruling vindicates Mark and validates what he has been saying all along, that he represented his client appropriately and within the rules and within the ethics of the profession,” said McNabola’s lawyer, Richard A. Devine.
Dan K. Webb, Brunswick’s lawyer in the federal lawsuit, said in an email he was disappointed in O’Hara’s ruling and planned to appeal. But he contended the decision won’t affect “the federal claims brought in the lawsuit filed last week.”
O’Hara’s “ruling ignored the extensive factual record in this case that had been developed for more than a year,” Webb said.
After the note was entered into the record in June 2015, a deal was reached between Vandenberg’s lawyer and a claims adjuster working on Brunswick’s behalf, according to court documents. But Brunswick argues McNabola and Agee concealed the existence of the jury question, then worked to undercut the company’s efforts to find out the truth about what happened that day, according to the lawsuit.
Judge Elizabeth M. Budzinski, who presided over the 2015 trial, apparently allowed the jury to continue to deliberate during the settlement talks. About five to 10 minutes after the settlement was entered into the record, “the jury concluded deliberations and signed a verdict form indicating a ‘verdict’ in (Brunswick’s) favor,” according to O’Hara’s ruling.
Webb pointed out that another Cook County judge, Daniel Lynch, threw out the settlement in May, ruling that due process required the jury’s verdict to be enforceable and the settlement void. But Lynch, for reasons he did not explain, recused himself from the case after Vandenberg’s lawyers alleged he was biased against McNabola.
Devine said he was analyzing O’Hara’s ruling to determine his next steps in the federal lawsuit, but he said he believes O’Hara’s ruling “dramatically undercuts” the suit.
Brunswick is seeking unspecified damages, in addition to legal fees, in its federal lawsuit.