Illinois Appellate Court Finds that Illinois Law Would Not Apply in Indiana Truck Crash and Reverses Trial Judge


In a case involving injury to James and Theresa Denton, who were injured by an 18-wheeler truck in Indiana, the trial court allowed the application of Illinois law, but the Illinois Appellate Court reversed finding that Indiana law applied.

James Denton was injured in Indiana when his car was hit by the truck operated by Lee Johnson, a resident of South Carolina, who was hauling a load in his truck, which originated from Illinois to South Carolina. He was working for Michigan and Delaware companies.

The defendants included Universal Am-Can Ltd., Universal Truckload Services Inc., Louis Broadwell LLC and the truck driver, David Lee Johnson. The defendants argued that Indiana law applied because Denton was injured in the final stage of a chain reaction of intermediate collisions that started when a now-deceased Indiana resident, George Kallis, drove northbound in the southbound lane of Interstate 65 in Jasper County, Ind.

The Dentons first filed the lawsuit in Chicago after settling with Kallis’s estate for $100,000. The trial judge in Cook County ruled that Illinois law controlled when challenged by the defendants.

In the interlocutory appeal taken after the trial judge decision to follow Illinois law, the Dentons first argued that the “defendants failed to set forth an adequate record to support the conclusion that the differences between the respective state laws will affect the outcome in this case.”

Illinois Appellate Court Justice Terrence J. Lavin explained, “The plaintiffs suggest we disregard the fact that the wrong-way driver was the precipitating factor in this chain-reaction accident. In fact, plaintiffs would have this court perform a jurisprudential ‘fact-ectomy’ and have us only consider that their car was rear-ended by Johnson’s truck. Plaintiffs justified this tack by arguing that the police report concerning this accident is not properly in the record and any references ought to therefore be stricken. We respectfully decline to apply a judicial blindfold.”

The tort law in Illinois and Indiana are very different. First the two states have different approaches to allocating fault among joint tortfeasors.

In Illinois, all defendants found liable are jointly and severally liable for the plaintiff’s past and future medical expenses. 735 ILCS 5/2-1117. A defendant who is at least 25% at fault is jointly and severally liable for all other damages as well, while a defendant whose fault falls below this 25% threshold is only severally, or proportionately, liable for all damages.

Under Illinois’ joint and several liability laws, if Johnson were found responsible for 25% or more of the damages caused to plaintiffs, he could be nonetheless responsible for the full amount of the damages.

Meanwhile, under Indiana law, defendants can only be held severally liable for their own percentage of fault. In addition, Indiana law allows a defendant to prove the negligence of an absent or settling tortfeasor. Under Indiana law, therefore, defendants could defend this case by attempting to persuade the jury that Kallis (even though a non-party) was entirely responsible or overwhelmingly responsible given the fact that his obvious negligence seems to have set everything else into motion.

By contrast, in Illinois, tortfeasors who have settled in good faith and who have been dismissed from the lawsuit are exempt from Section 2-1117 and therefore may not be apportioned fault by the trier of fact.

The trier of fact in Illinois can consider only the fault of settling tortfeasors if there is evidence to suggest fault by the settling tortfeasor and if plaintiff is contributorily negligent. Illinois Pattern Jury Instructions Civil, No. B45.03.A (2012). Settling tortfeasors, nonetheless are immune from suits for contribution. 740 ILCS 100/2(d). Were Illinois law to be applied, Johnson would be precluded from obtaining any contribution from the Kallis estate, assuming it and plaintiffs settled in good faith. In re Guardianship of Babb, 162 Ill.2d 153 (1994) (noting the contribution law); see also 740 ILCS 100/2(b).

There is no doubt that the law in Indiana favors the defendants in terms of fault and damages whereas Illinois law would benefit the plaintiffs’ case. In the motion practice, the defendants attached the police report to its motion considering improper venue. Because the accident report was before the trial judge, it can be referenced in the appellate court’s decision. There was no objection by the plaintiffs when the defendants offered up the accident report in its motion. The plaintiffs argued in the appellate court that the police report could not be considered because it is not admissible evidence. The appellate court commented that even absent the concessions that the plaintiffs made, it was noted that the police reports have been admitted into evidence, provided there was a proper foundation as past recollection recorded or for use in impeachment.

The appeals panel stated that plaintiffs have failed to adequately develop their argument that a procedural rule from another state can be used to dispose of a present choice-of-law question. The court then analyzed which of the two states, Indiana or Illinois, had a more significant relationship to the case. There is a legal presumption that the local law of the state where the injury occurred applies in determining the rights and liabilities of parties unless Illinois has a more significant relationship to the conflict. In answering this choice-of-law certified question, the appeals panel concluded that the substantive law of Indiana should apply because Indiana has more significant contacts with the lawsuit and policy reasons also support the application of Indiana Law.

Accordingly, the Illinois appellate court reversed the judgment of the circuit court ruling in favor of the application of Illinois law and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the opinion in respect to the application of Indiana law.

Denton v. Universal Am-Can, Ltd., 2015 IL App (1st) 132905 (Jan. 14, 2015).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling truck accident injury cases, car accident injury cases, wrongful death cases and bicycle 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 River Grove, Rosemont, Cicero, Aurora, Joliet, Waukegan, Lake Bluff, Buffalo Grove, Arlington heights, Orland Park, Oak Lawn, Willowbrook, Northfield, Bensenville, Elk Grove Village and Prospect Heights, Ill.

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