Illinois Appellate Court Affirms Jury’s Verdict in Truck Crash on Icy Indiana Highway

The Illinois Appellate Court has affirmed a defense verdict in a multi-vehicle crash on an icy Indiana highway that caused severe injuries to motorists. The big issue in the case was which state’s law should be applied at a Cook County Circuit Court jury trial.

On Dec. 26, 2007, Clifford Ruse, a truck driver for Harvey, Ill.-based Envirite of Illinois Inc. was driving eastbound on Interstate 80/94 in Hammond, Ind., when he was struck by an SUV whose driver had lost control on a patch of black ice.

Ruse swerved his truck to the left and hit the highway’s median wall. On impact, the container of mill dust in tow was detached from his truck and that container crossed into the westbound lanes of the interstate highway. The plaintiff in the case, Daniel Kovera, was one of several drivers injured when the container landed on their cars. In March 2008, Kovera and his wife filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Ill.

The Koveras claimed that they were injured under the doctrine res ipsa loquitur, claiming that the crash would not have happened without the presence of negligence by Ruse’s and Envirite’s driving and in the failure to secure safely the trailer, which became detached crossing into traffic.

Ruse and Envirite filed a third-party complaint in December 2008 against Orlando Lopez, the driver of the SUV that first hit Ruse’s truck. In May 2009, Kovera filed an amended complaint naming Lopez as another party-defendant.

Ruse and Envirite filed affirmative defenses that Lopez’s negligence was the sole proximate cause of Kovera’s injuries. Ruse and Envirite argued that Indiana law should be applied, which would reduce the percentage of any verdict by the fault attributed to Lopez.

In May 2013, the Kovera family reached a $250,000 settlement with Lopez. The presiding Cook County judge discharged Lopez from all liability from contribution and dismissed him from the lawsuit.

The judge wrote that nothing in the order affected Ruse and Envirite from applying Indiana law in the pending case.

In the judge’s decision, he noted two substantive differences between Illinois and Indiana law.

The first question was since Lopez was a settling defendant; would he be included on the jury verdict form that would be given to the jury in deliberation? The second question was what evidence could be presented regarding the Koveras’ medical bills?

The trial judge determined that Indiana law would apply; the court found the case’s relationship with Illinois did not overcome the presumption to apply the law where the crash occurred, Indiana. Before opening statements, the trial judge ruled that Lopez would not be named on the jury verdict form, but allowed Ruse and Envirite to mention the prior settlement, but not the amount of the settlement.

After the plaintiffs rested, the defendants moved for directed findings. The trial judge granted a directed finding for the willful-and-wanton claims of grossly negligent driving and road-securement.

However, once the defendants rested, the trial judge granted a directed finding in Ruse and Envirite’s favor regarding load-securement. The jury was left to decide only the issue of negligent driving.

The plaintiffs tendered jury instructions based on the Indiana Model Civil Jury Instructions, which cite sections of that state’s code and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.

The Indiana model instructions state that a jury must decide a person is negligent if it decides that person violated the state code or the federal regulations and the violation was not excused.

The judge admitted later as to the jury instruction portion that he struggled with the instruction, but agreed to give the instruction anyway.

Rather than instructing the jury that a code violation proved negligence on its face, the instructions allowed the jury to consider any violations “together with all other facts and circumstances in determining whether and to what extent, if any, that person was negligent.” The jury found in favor of the defendants. The plaintiffs appealed.

The Kovera argument was that they are entitled to a new trial because the verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence. They also argued that the trial judge erred in determining Indiana law applied before trial, allowing evidence about the Lopez settlement and choosing not to use the correct jury instructions under Indiana law.

First the Illinois Appellate Court found that the jury’s decision that Ruse was not at fault was not against the manifest weight of the evidence.

Next the appeals panel addressed whether the trial judge should have applied Illinois law because the defendants weighed any argument that Indiana law applied and the court failed to find waiver.

“The trial court noted that it had not been asked to rule on the issue until [the beginning of trial] by either party and that it would have done so earlier if requested.”

The court also noted that in the procedural history of the case, Indiana law was raised in defendants’ pleadings as early as November 2009 and continued to be raised through May 2011. In addition, the appeals panel pointed out that no one asked the judge to rule on the issue before the eve of trial. It was at that point where the parties discussed whether Lopez should appear on the verdict form.

The court found that although the trial judge should have resolved the choice of law matter earlier, it did find that the trial judge had not abused his discretion in his ruling. The panel also rejected the Kovera argument that including details of the Lopez settlement to be heard by the jury prejudiced them. The court noted that it was no secret that Lopez was at least partially at fault for the accident itself. The appeals panel found that it was not prejudicial to let the jury know that Lopez had settled.

Finally, the Illinois Appellate Court found that the jury instructions were not faulty. Accordingly, the trial judge’s decisions were affirmed on appeal. The attorneys representing the plaintiffs are considering an appeal to a higher court.

Daniel Kovera, et al., v. Envirite of Illinois, et al., 2015 IL App (1st) 133049.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling automobile accident cases, truck accident cases, nursing home abuse cases, motorcycle accident cases and bicycle accident injury cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 38 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Forest Park, Franklin Park, Chicago Ridge, Calumet City, Alsip, Barrington, Barrington Hills, Bedford Park, Glenwood, Lansing, Lincolnwood, Lincolnshire, Riverdale, Lake Bluff, Gurnee, Grayslake, Waukegan, Elgin, Joliet, Tinley Park, South Holland, South Barrington, Schiller Park, Chicago (South Shore, Printer’s Row, Old Town Triangle, Oz Park, Pill Hill, Pilsen), Oak Park and Bedford Park, Ill.

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