Illinois Appellate Court Reverses, Concluding That Trial Judge Misapplied the Law Regarding Sole Proximate Cause

In a divided opinion by the Illinois Appellate Court, the majority viewed the case revolving “around a single question: Is the sole proximate cause theory and jury instruction available in a negligence action if a defendant argues more than one nonparty actor was the sole proximate cause of plaintiff’s injury?”

The decision of the appellate court reinstated a verdict against jockey Rene Douglas in a case in which the defendants, Arlington Park Racecourse and its owner, Churchill Downs, blamed Douglas’s fall from his mount, Born To Be. The incident took place during the 2009 Arlington Matron Handicap on two nonparties: Jockey Jaime Theriot and Martin Collins LLC, the manufacturer of the track’s synthetic surface.

Arlington Park’s 2-empty chair theory was that (1) Theriot allegedly caused the accident when his horse’s back legs reportedly “clipped” Born To Be’s front legs and/or (2) Douglas’s injuries were catastrophic because Martin Collins failed to warn about the need for special maintenance to eliminate the “unsafe dynamic shear angle” that allegedly caused Douglas to “pocket” into the synthetic surface.

The trial judge gave jurors the long-form version of Illinois Pattern Instruction (Civil) No. 12.04, which explained that “more than one person may be to blame for causing an injury,” and “if you decide that the sole proximate cause of injury to the plaintiff was the conduct of some other person other than the defendant, then your verdict should be for the defendant.”

Along with a verdict against Douglas, the jury answered “yes” to a special interrogatory that asked whether “the conduct of some person other than the defendants was the sole proximate cause of plaintiffs’ injuries?”

Granting Douglas’s request for a new trial, the judge explained that the reference to “some other than defendants” was “vague” and “improper” when “coupled with the sole proximate cause instruction” and the “special interrogatory should have been specific as to whose conduct the jury was to consider.”

The sole proximate cause theory merely focuses the attention of a properly instructed jury and the plaintiff’s duty to prove that the defendant’s conduct was a proximate cause of plaintiff’s injury.  But what if the defendant is directing blame at two nonparty tortfeasors?  The defendant may wish to argue that (1) nonparty A’s negligence was the sole proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries; (2) nonparty B’s negligence was the sole proximate cause; or (3) the negligence of nonparty A and nonparty B, collectively, was the sole proximate cause.

Those three arguments are simply three different ways of saying the same thing- that the plaintiff failed to prove that the party-defendant’s negligence was a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries – not even 1% of the cause – because 100% of the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries was the conduct of nonparty A and/or nonparty B.

The critical point here is that the defendant’s level of contribution to the plaintiff’s injuries is 0% whether the 100% of the blame falls on nonparty A, nonparty B, or both, is of no import. The sole proximate cause theory should be just as viable with two or more nonparty actors as it is with a single nonparty.

That is a lesson taken from the two decisions by the Supreme Court in Ready v. United/Goedecke, 238 Ill.2d 582 (2010) and Nolan v. Weil-McLain, 233 Ill.2d 416 (2009).

Nolan and Ready inescapably support the conclusion that the sole proximate cause theory is available to a defendant, even when that defendant is claiming that more than one nonparty actor’s negligence was the sole proximate cause of plaintiff’s injuries.

Because there was sufficient evidence to support the sole proximate cause theory concerning both Theriot and Martin Collins, the defendants were entitled to that instruction.  In granting the plaintiff a new trial, the court committed legal error in ruling that the sole proximate cause instruction and IPI Civil No. 12.04 was incorrectly given as a matter of law.  For these and other reasons, the trial court’s order granting a new trial was reversed.

Douglas v. Arlington Park Racecourse, 2018 IL App (1st) 162962 (June 29, 2018).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling catastrophic injury lawsuits, car accident cases, truck accident cases, bicycle accident cases and work injury lawsuits 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 River Grove, Rosemont, Hinsdale, Western Springs, Barrington, South Barrington, Waukegan, Aurora, Elgin, Morton Grove, Chicago (Wicker Park, Logan Square, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, West Loop, South Shore, Lake Calumet), Deerfield, Vernon Hills, Buffalo Grove, Elmhurst and Lincolnshire, Ill.

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