Illinois Appellate Court Affirms Ruling to Vacate $4.25 Million Wrongful-Death Verdict

A wrongful-death verdict that was vacated by a trial judge was affirmed on appeal by the Illinois Appellate Court. The jury’s verdict of $4.25 million was reached in a wrongful-death trial awarded to the family of a woman killed in a highway crash. But the trial judge vacated the verdict after it was revealed that the woman was married and that her parents and siblings were not her heirs under Illinois law. The judge would not let the woman’s husband file an amended complaint finding that he engaged in fraud with the woman’s family.

In an opinion that covered 107 pages written by Justice Robert E. Gordon, the panel found that the trial court was correct in vacating that verdict. But in a partial reversal, the panel will allow the woman’s husband to file an amended complaint.

The parents and eight siblings of 28-year-old Hawa Sissoko sued Alfred C. Baggiani and Roadway Express, the driver and owner of the semi-trailer that struck and killed Sissoko in 2007. She was standing behind her car in the right lane of the Indiana Toll Road outside Chesterton, Ind., when the accident occurred.

In the complaint filed by Sissoko’s estate, it was presented that she was an unmarried hair braider who sent money back to support her family in the African country of Mali.

The estate was represented by Sissoko’s uncle, Sylla Bangaly, who lived in Chicago. After she died, Bangaly executed an affidavit of heirship in Cook County Circuit Court stating that Sissoko’s parents were still living, she had eight siblings and had never married.

In October 2011, two weeks before her trial was set to begin, the defendants noticed while preparing documents that a partially burned document originally thought to be a birth certificate was actually a Malian marriage certificate.

The document showed that Sissoko was married in 1998 to New York cab driver Noumouke Keita. The lawyers for Bangaly produced a divorce decree sent from Sissoko’s father in Mali showing that she was divorced before the accident.

The defendants requested a postponement of the trial to investigate the documents, but their request was denied. The jury identified $5 million in damages to the parents and siblings but reduced the award by 15% for contributory negligence assigned to the decedent.

At the end of the trial, the trial judge granted a post-trial discovery motion to determine if Sissoko was married at the time of her death. In post-trial discovery, Bangaly’s expert concluded the divorce decree was forged. The estate then began arguing the initial marriage was never valid under Malian law.

After a year of post-trial discovery, Keita, her supposed husband, intervened in the case. The trial judge found that Keita and the decedent were validly married under Mali law and that the marriage was in effect when Sissoko died. In addition, the trial judge vacated both the liability and damages portion of the verdict, ruling that details of Sissoko’s marriage would impact the case percentage by the defense in that it was alleged that Sissoko intentionally stopped her car on the road possibly as a suicide attempt. The court also removed Bangaly as the administrator of the estate but denied Keita’s request to become the new administrator. The court found that Keita’s late arrival in the case was “inexcusable” and told the courtroom he believed Keita and Sissoko’s family engaged in fraud on the court to increase an award.

On appeal, the panel found that the dismissal of the case was appropriate, but that Keita should be allowed to make wrongful-death claims in the interest of justice. The appellate court will allow Keita to file an amended complaint. There are motions pending for sanctions against Bangaly and Sissoko’s parents in Mali. There is also a criminal contempt matter against Bangaly scheduled for November 2014.

Sylla Bangaly v. Alfred C. Baggiani, et al., 2014 IL App (1st) 123760.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling wrongful-death lawsuits, truck accidents, car accident cases, bicycle accident cases and automobile accident 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 Skokie, Lincolnwood, Lincolnshire, Park Ridge, Des Plaines, Franklin Park, Berkeley, Bensenville, Rolling Meadows, Bolingbrook, Romeoville, Glencoe, Hickory Hills, Alsip, Blue Island and Calumet City, Ill.

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