Illinois Appellate Court Affirms $4.7 Million Verdict Finding Sufficient Evidence of Agency Relationship

The appeal in this case comes out of a jury’s verdict in favor of the plaintiff, Lanisha Blockmon, who was special administrator of the Estate of Walter Blockmon III. On July 11, 2014, Blockmon was driving on I-80 near the city of Country Club Hills, Ill., when his vehicle was hit from behind by the vehicle driven by the defendant, Jakobi McClellan. Blockmon died from his injuries. After his death, Lanisha Blockmon filed a 5-count fourth amended complaint in the Circuit Court of Cook County naming McClellan, Vector Marketing Corp. and Cutco Corp. as defendants.

Vector Marketing sells and distributes cutlery and other kitchen equipment manufactured by Cutco. The lawsuit alleged that in July 2014, McClellan, the defendant, was a sales representative for an agent of Vector and Cutco, and that at the time of the incident, McClellan was traveling between sales calls in his role as a Vector sales representative.

McClellan admitted that at the time of the incident he was using the mapping and GPS functions on his cell phone to check the location of his next sales call and to determine how late he was running, and that he was not looking at the road.

At trial, the Blockmon lawsuit pursued theories that Vector and Cutco were directly liable for Blockmon’s death for breaching a duty to train McClellan not to use his cell phone while driving. The Blockmon lawsuit also alleged that the defendants were vicariously liable for the death because McClellan was an agent for Vector and Cutco at the time of the accident, as he was en route to a customer’s home while acting as a Vector sales representative.

The jury returned a general verdict in favor of the Blockmon estate and against McClellan, Vector and Cutco, and signed a verdict in favor of the Blockmon family for $4.7 million in damages. The Circuit Court denied post-trial motions by Vector and Cutco for direct verdict, judgment notwithstanding the verdict (j.n.o.v.) and for a new trial.

On appeal, Vector and Cutco argued that the Circuit Court should have entered a judgment n.o.v. on plaintiff’s direct negligence claim because plaintiff failed to prove that Vector or Cutco owed the deceased a duty of care and that the plaintiff failed to establish proximate cause. Vector and Cutco further argued that the Circuit Court should have entered judgment n.o.v. on plaintiff’s vicarious liability claim because the evidence at trial was insufficient to establish that McClellan was an agent for Vector and Cutco at the time of the incident.

Alternatively, Vector and Cutco contended that the trial judge should have ordered a new trial because the jury’s verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence and because the Circuit Court erred by (1) refusing to submit a proposed special interrogatory to the jury asking whether McClellan was an independent contractor at the time of the occurrence; and (2) refusing to instruct the jury that a written sales representative agreement between McClellan and Vector and Cutco was a relevant factor in determining whether McClellan was an agent of Vector and Cutco; and (3) permitting plaintiff to question Vector’s legal affairs manager at trial about contracts of adhesion and the doctrine of unconscionability, since the enforceability of the sales representative agreement was not at issue; and and (4) permitting plaintiff’s counsel to make certain statements during closing argument.

The appeals panel found that the trial court properly denied post-trial motions by Vector and Cutco for judgment n.o.v. and for a new trial. The appellate court found that there was sufficient evidence that an agency relationship existed, so that evidence was sufficient to sustain a general verdict. No error in the court’s refusal to submit to the jury a special interrogatory asking whether McClellan, as a sales representative, was an independent contractor at the time of the occurrence, as the Blockmon Estate had two theories of liability: that the two companies were vicariously liable as the sales representative (McClellan) was an agent, and that these defendants were directly liable for their choosing not to properly train him.

Blockmon v. McClellan, 219 IL App (1st) 180420 (June 24, 2019) Cook County, First Division.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling rear-end car crash cases, truck accident lawsuits, motorcycle accident cases, traumatic brain injury lawsuits, bicycle accident cases and catastrophic injury lawsuits for individuals, families and loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Palos Heights, Palatine, Orland Park, Flossmoor, Elmhurst, Schaumburg, Schiller Park, Lansing, Oak Park, Evergreen Park, Chicago (Hegewisch, Bronzeville, Albany Park, Jefferson Park, Irving Park, Washington Park, Bucktown, Wicker Park), Deerfield, Glenview, Northfield, Naperville, Wheaton, Aurora and Geneva, Ill.

Robert D. Kreisman has been an active member of the Illinois and Missouri  bars since 1976.

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