Illinois Appellate Court Affirms in Part and Reverses in Part a $19 Million Wrongful Death Lawsuit

On Sept. 13, 2011, James Langholf, employed by Howe Freightways Inc., was driving a semi-tractor and trailer truck through Iowa when he heard a pop and felt the engine shake. He then noticed black smoke coming from the engine. He had the engine powered on but pulled off to the side of the road and called Howe’s director of safety and maintenance and the shop foreman for help.

Langholf could not restart the engine and was told to call Cummins, the manufacturing company for his truck’s engine, which had a repair shop nearby.

On advice from someone at Cummins, Langholf called Hanifen Co. in Des Moines to get a tow. Hanifen was 53 miles away and farther than two other tow companies. Two trucks were dispatched, as two were needed to tow the semi-tractor and trailer.

The two tow trucks were driven by James Inman and Daniel Walsh. They arrived at 7 p.m., and parked behind and in front of Langholf’s truck. Around 7 p.m., another semi trailer truck slammed into Inman’s tow truck, and the truck driven by Langholf was pushed into Walsh’s tow truck. All three men, as well as Herbert Terrell, the driver of the second truck, which was owned by Hiner Equipment LLC, were killed.

Laura Inman, James’s wife, filed suit independently and on behalf of her husband’s estate, alleging negligence by both Howe and Hiner themselves and by and through the actions of Langholf and Terrell. Prior to trial, numerous motions in limine were filed regarding admissible testimony.

Both Howe and Hiner were found liable and Inman was awarded $19 million by the jury with Howe liable for 57% and Hiner liable for 43%. Howe appealed.

On appeal, Howe argued for a number of errors, including several rulings on motions in limine, denials of judgment notwithstanding the verdict, a new trial and ordering discovery sanctions.  The appellate court found that the trial court had not abused its discretion in denying judgment notwithstanding the verdict or Howe’s motion for a new trial based on the general verdict jury instructions.

Howe then argued that the trial judge erred in granting a motion in limine barring eyewitness testimony that Terrell was not wearing a shirt when seen driving shortly before the incident, given that he was found with one on afterwards.

Further, Howe questioned the denial of two other motions in limine, which sought to bar testimony that Langholf’s truck could have reached the next highway exit and regarding internal policy, which allegedly should have prevented Langholf from driving until he completed a safety training class.

The Illinois Appellate Court for the First District agreed with Howe that the eyewitness testimony regarding Terrell should have been admitted, finding that the possibility that Terrell was distracted by putting on a shirt was not too remote and was significant enough to warrant reversal as it could “dramatically affect the jury’s verdict, specifically its apportionment of fault.”

The appeals panel also found that the trial court had not abused its discretion in assessing discovery sanctions. However, the appellate court agreed with Howe that the trial judge had erred in refusing to reconsider the sanctions on the ground that “it was not proper as a matter of law to reconsider the rulings of the motion judge.”

The appellate court found that the trial judge had the authority to reconsider the sanctions, though he may opt not to. Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded the case for a new trial with directions.

Lisa Inman v. Howe Freightways Inc., et al., 2019 IL App (1st) 172459 (Aug. 26, 2019).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling truck accident lawsuits, car accident lawsuits, catastrophic injury lawsuits, wrongful death lawsuits and motorcycle accident 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 Hoffman Estates, Bensenville, West Chicago, Batavia, North Aurora, Naperville, Wood Ridge, Burr Ridge, Bolingbrook, Chicago Ridge, Evergreen Park, Dolton, Calumet City, Oak Forest, Tinley Park, Frankfort, University Park, Crete, Matteson, Hinsdale, Elmhurst, Hanover Park, Streamwood, West Dundee, Barrington, Lake Barrington, Hawthorne Woods, Buffalo Grove, Riverwoods, Evanston, Highwood, Elk Grove Village, Chicago (Logan Square, Lincoln Park, Near North Side, Little Village, Back of the Yards, Hyde Park, Wrigleyville, East Side, Roseland, South Side, Auburn Gresham, Chatham, Beverly, Pullman, Calumet Heights, Bronzeville, Fuller Park, McKinley Park, Bridgeport, Chinatown, Little Italy, Ukrainian Village, Old Irving Park, Albany Park, Ravenswood, Uptown, Rogers Park, Sauganash, Wildwood, Norwood Park, Edison Park), Park Ridge, Des Plaines, Deerfield, Wheeling and Vernon Hills, Ill.

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