Illinois Appellate Court Affirms Trial Court’s Denial of Motion for New Trial

Thomas Neuhengen was injured in a forklift accident allegedly caused by Frederick Neirinckx, a Global Experience Specialists employee. The judgment was entered in the amount of $12,228,068 in compensatory damages and $3 million in punitive damages for Neuhengen. Global Experience appealed from that judgment.

Global Experience argued that the trial judge erred in refusing to dismiss Count III of the plaintiff’s complaint, which provided the predicate for the exemplary award for alleging willful and wanton conduct in hiring and training Neirinckx because Global Experience stipulated, before trial, that it would be vicariously liable for any negligent or careless conduct by Neirinckx.

In the appeal, Global Experience relied on the case of Neff v. Davenport Packing Co., 131 Ill.App.2d 791 (1971). In cases in which a complaint alleges negligence by an employee along with vicarious liability for that negligence against the employer, Neff calls for dismissing the negligence claims against the corporation if it admits liability for the employee’s conduct.

In affirming the court’s ruling on Count III, the Illinois Appellate Court concluded that “there is no sound reason” for applying the Neff rule “where a plaintiff has pled a viable claim for punitive damages based on allegations of willful and wanton conduct against an employer for its independent actions in hiring and retaining an employee or entrusting a vehicle to an unfit employee.”

On appeal, the defendants argued that under Neff the trial court was required to dismiss all counts directed at Global Experience’s actions once it had admitted respondeat superior liability for Neirinckx.

In the Neff case, the plaintiff’s decedent was in an accident with an employee driving a vehicle for his employer. The plaintiff filed a complaint against the driver and the driver’s employer alleging both negligence under a respondeat superior theory as well as negligent entrustment directly against the employer.

The employer subsequently admitted that the employee was its agent and operating within the scope of employment and if the employee were liable, the employer would also be liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior. The employer also moved to dismiss the negligent entrustment count as “irrelevant” since it had admitted agency. The trial court denied the motion.

The Neff court held that the trial court erred in failing to dismiss the negligent entrustment count against the employer. Under Neff, when a principal admits responsibility for its agent’s negligence, any liability alleged under an alternative theory, such as negligent entrustment or negligent hiring, becomes irrelevant and should properly be dismissed.

Once the principal admitted responsibility for its agent tortfeasor, the admission of evidence of the principal’s misconduct becomes unnecessary. However, in the case of Lockett v. Bi-State Transit Authority, 94 Ill.2d 66 (1983), the court distinguished the basis of a willful and wanton entrustment claim for negligent entrustment.

“In cases involving willful and wanton entrustment, however, the analysis necessarily differs from that of negligent entrustment. Unlike the situation in negligent entrustment cases, where the misconduct of the defendant-principal is of the same level of culpability as that of the tortfeasor-agent, defendants-principals may be found guilty of willful and wanton misconduct even though the tortfeasor-agents to whom the instrumentality causing the injury was entrusted may have been only negligent. Furthermore, while contributory negligence by the plaintiffs would, prior to Alvis v. Ribar, 85 Ill.2d 1 (1981), bar recovery in actions for negligent entrustment, it would not preclude recovery when the defendants were guilty of willful and wanton misconduct. Consequently, the necessity of proof of the defendant-principal’s misconduct in connection with willful and wanton entrustment actions is not eliminated simply because that party acknowledges an agency relationship with the tortfeasor.”

Thus, the Illinois Supreme Court clarified that a principal can be found guilty of willful and wanton misconduct even when the agent tortfeasor’s conduct was merely negligent.

Because there is an exception to the Neff case, it is clear that claims alleging willful and wanton conduct by an employer are not extinguished by an admission of respondeat superior liability for the actions of the employee.

In conclusion, the Illinois Appellate Court found that the trial court did not err in allowing the willful and wanton count against both the employer and the employee to go to the jury for its ultimate decision.

Neuhengen v. Global Experience Specialists, 2018 IL App (1st) 16032.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling forklift negligence lawsuits, work injury cases, construction site lawsuits and motor vehicle 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 Palos Park, Tinley Park, Schiller Park, Vernon Hills, Elmwood Park, Melrose Park, Deerfield, Waukegan, Bolingbrook, Bensenville, Romeoville, Chicago (Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village, Andersonville, Albany Park, West Rogers Park, Garfield Park, Washington Park, Hegewisch), Arlington Heights, Orland Park, Oak Lawn and Linwood, Ill.

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