The Illinois Appellate Court has upheld a $1.9 million Cook County jury verdict for injuries to a man who was riding his bike on a city street that was under construction.
In July 2007, the city of Chicago was resurfacing an intersection, which altered the otherwise safe bicycle path. While under construction, the alteration resulted in a raised structure in the roadway and a shallow gash not readily visible to bikers. The alteration by the city was the proximate cause of the biker’s injuries, the court concluded.
In upholding the jury verdict, the appellate court upheld the Cook County’s judge’s refusal of a special interrogatory on the grounds it was prejudicial and implied several questions inside one “deceptively brief” question.
The interrogatory asked: “Was the contributory negligence of Todd Smart, if any, greater than 50 percent of the proximate cause of his injuries?”
The Illinois Appellate Court wrote that the “form of the special interrogatory was in direct contradiction to the established rule that a special interrogatory must be phrased as a single straightforward question.”
Special interrogatories are given to jurors by a plaintiff or defendant in addition to the verdict forms. The purpose is to help the process in decoding the jury’s rationale by identifying specific facts in a verdict, or to test if a jury’s interpretation of a particular fact corresponds with its general verdict.
When a jury’s response to a special interrogatory is at odds with the general verdict, the judgment favors the special interrogatory.
In this case, the appellate court found that the special interrogatory assumed that the plaintiff was contributory negligent, but never asked the jury to determine that negligence independently.
The facts of the case were that in July 2007, the bicyclist, Todd Smart, was riding his bike across Cortland and Marcey Streets in Chicago. As he crossed the intersection on Cortland, he weaved between manhole covers protruding from the pavement where city workers made big gashes into the road during a resurfacing project. Smart’s front tire got caught in one of the trenches and he flipped forward breaking his arm and dislocating his shoulder. Smart filed a lawsuit against the city in December 2007 alleging a single count of negligence.
Before trial, the city argued that Smart was comparatively negligent and the court agreed to bar any evidence or testimony regarding the city’s failure to provide warnings or barricades.
During the jury instruction conference in July 2011, the city submitted its special interrogatory and also wanted to instruct the jury on the burden of proof requiring premises-liability cases instead of the burden in a general negligence case.
The trial judge rejected the interrogatory in part because it could confuse or mislead the jury. The judge also instructed the jury to decide on the general negligence because that was the claim that Smart brought in his complaint. The jury found in favor of Smart and awarded him more than just $1.9 million in damages.
The city appealed, arguing that the judge was wrong in rejecting the premises-liability case. The appellate court rejected that argument, stating that Smart’s complaint solely alleged negligence.
With respect to the special interrogatory that was proposed by the city, the court found that there was a leap made in the wording such that it assumed that Smart was contributory negligent. Adding the words, “if any” to the special interrogatory did not remove the confusion in the special interrogatory wording. This case was important because in general negligence cases, the plaintiff only needs to show the owner’s duty to exercise ordinary care for safe use. Whereas, in a premises-liability case, the plaintiff must prove the property owner knew of risks based on the property’s condition.
Kreisman Law Offices has been handling bicycle accidents, car crashes and truck accidents for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 37 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Chicago (Rogers Park, Albany Park, Lincoln Square, East Chatham, Pullman, Roscoe Village, East Side), Northbrook, Wheeling, Prospect Heights, Stickney, Cicero, Oak Park and Hickory Hills, Ill.
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