Alternative Liability Rule Applied in Two-Vehicle Collision – Anderson v. Anderson

The Illinois Appellate Court reviewed the personal injury lawsuit of Anderson v. Anderson, 2011 Ill.App. (1st) 10034 (Sept. 30, 2011), to determine whether or not the trial judge had correctly ordered a new trial. After reviewing the case facts and the jury’s decision, the appellate court disagreed with the trial judge and reversed his order for a new trial. As a result, the not guilty verdict entered against the two defendants in Anderson stands.

Anderson arose out of a two-vehicle collision between a mini-van driven by defendant Sean Anderson and a vehicle driven by defendant Frank Fratto. The personal injury claim was filed by the six passengers in Anderson’s van at the time of the car accident and was brought against both of the drivers involved in the intersection accident. The personal injury claim alleged that both Anderson and Fratto were at fault for the auto crash and therefore were both responsible for the plaintiffs’ injuries.

However, the Illinois jury found in favor of both defendants and failed to find either at fault for the intersection accident. Rather than letting this verdict stand, the trial judge ruled that the verdict was invalid and granted a new trial. When defending his ruling, the judge stated that “the jury’s finding that neither was negligent given the facts of this case is unreasonable and against the manifest weight of the evidence. The jury had the discretion of apportioning the fault between the two parties, but a wash of liability is not an option when the injured is not an active participant in the cause of the incident.”

The case was then brought before the Illinois Appellate Court in order to decide whether the jury was required to find in favor of the plaintiffs against at least one of the defendants. In order to rule on this issue, the court examined whether or not an alternative liability doctrine could be applied. While the burden of proving liability generally falls on the plaintiff, in some cases the burden of proof can be shifted to the defendants.

The doctrine of alternative liability was examined in Wysocki v. Reed, 222 Ill.App.3d 268 (1991), which states:

Where the conduct of two or more actors is tortious, and it is proved that harm has been caused to the plaintiff by only one of them, but there is uncertainty as to which one has caused it, the burden is upon each actor to prove that he has not caused the harm.

Wysocki established that under the doctrine of alternative liability the burden of causation is shifted to the negligent defendants. However, this shift is not automatically; the plaintiff must still prove that each defendant was negligent. After the plaintiff has done so, it then is up to the defendants to prove that the other was negligent.

And while it seems odd that the jury in Anderson found that neither of the two drivers involved in the intersection accident were responsible for causing it, this does not automatically mean that the doctrine of alternative liability applies. Rather, the appellate court noted that it simply means that the passenger plaintiffs failed to prove that either Fratto or Anderson were negligent. The appellate court upheld the jury’s right to rule in this manner and ruled that doing so was not “legally inconsistent” or against the manifest weight of the evidence. As a result of this conclusion, the appellate court ruled that a new trial was an abuse of the trial court’s discretion and would not be upheld.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois automobile crash cases for individuals and families for more than 35 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and surrounding areas, including Addison, Mundelein, Bolingbrook, Park Forest, Tinley Park, and Dolton.

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