Illinois Appellate Court Affirms $54 Million Jury Verdict Where Defendant-Appellant Failed to Raise Issue in Post-Trial Motion

David Lee Johnson, an employee of Universal AM-CAN Ltd. and Louis Broadwell LLC, was driving a truck owned by his employers above the speed limit while on a suspended license.  Johnson crashed his vehicle into a Jeep in front of him driven by the plaintiff, James Denton.

The crash pushed Denton’s car into a semitrailer tractor truck. Denton eventually managed to crawl out of the rear passenger window, but he suffered multiple traumatic injuries, including severe nerve and spinal damage. He required nine surgeries that were not altogether successful. His injuries have left him with a neurogenic bladder and he is unable to work. Denton also was required to see a counselor for depression and anxiety.

The driver of the truck, Johnson, had nine traffic-related offenses in the seven years before applying to work at Universal as well as four counts of felony reckless aggravated assault when he tried, with a wooden club, to break the headlights of the car occupied by four women who he claimed were tailgating him.

In addition, Johnson had a charge of “misdemeanor assault and battery of high and aggravated nature” shortly afterward. He was, by Universal’s own safety standards, not qualified, but was hired nonetheless and never terminated even when he had his commercial driver’s license suspended.

In this case, the court followed Indiana law. However, the case was tried in Illinois where a Cook County jury signed a verdict in favor of Denton for more than $16 million in compensatory damages, his wife’s loss of consortium verdict of $13 million and also assigned $35 million in punitive damages, all against Universal.

The defendants appealed. The appellate court began by noting that the defendants’ statement of facts was “chockablock with argumentative, conclusory allegations” such as that “nothing in Johnson’s driving history … would suggest that he was a dangerous truck driver.”

As such, the appellate court concluded that “we will not consider any statements made by defendants that are argumentative or without reference to the record.” The plaintiffs were also criticized for attempting to get around the maximum brief length by using 11-point font.

On appeal, Universal argued that the $35 million as punitive damages were “unconstitutionally excessive.”

Denton argued on appeal that this argument was forfeited when Universal chose not to raise it in the defendants’ post-trial motion, and the appellate court agreed, noting that the defendants’ post-trial motion “didn’t make an argument . . . about excessive punitive damages, just that the punitive damage award was driven by the mistakes in the closing argument.”

However, leaving aside the issue of forfeiture, the appellate court concluded that the award of damages was not against the manifest weight of the evidence regardless. Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s orders and the jury’s verdict.

James Denton and Theresa Denton v. Universal AM-CAN, Ltd., et al., 2019 IL App (1st) 181525.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling catastrophic injury lawsuits, truck crash cases, nursing home negligence lawsuits and wrongful death cases 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 Elmhurst, Franklin Park, Wood Dale, Bloomingdale, Lake Zurich, Glen Ellyn, Chicago Ridge, Blue Island, South Holland, Calumet City, Chicago (Roseland, East Side, South Chicago, Greater Grand Crossing, Chicago Lawn, Marquette Park, Back of the Yards, Fuller Park, Bronzeville, Little Italy, Humboldt Park, Logan Square), River Grove, Itasca, Park Ridge, Morton Grove, Glenview and Prospect Heights, Ill.

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

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