Illinois Court Chooses Not to Widen Traveling Employee Theory in Death Case

The Illinois Appellate Court has affirmed a partial summary judgment order for a defendant in a head-on crash and death case.  This case arose out of a collision in which the car driven by Jeffrey Pister was struck head-on by an employee of the defendant, Matrix Service Industrial Contractors.  At the time of the crash in April 2009, the Matrix driver, Brian Stultz, was nearing his destination in Champaign, Ill.  Stultz was scheduled to work there later that morning for Matrix. Stultz and Jeffrey Pister were killed in the collision.

Jeffrey’s widow, Tisha Pister, filed a third-amended complaint against Matrix and the Estate of Brian Stultz.  The Estate of Stultz was not part of the appeal.

In the lawsuit, the Pister family claimed that Matrix was liable for Jeffrey’s death under the doctrine of respondeat superior.  Pister asserted two theories:  (1) Brian was a “traveling employee” of Matrix, on which the court, before the trial granted summary judgment for Matrix, and (2) Brian was on a “special errand” for Matrix at the time of the crash. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Matrix on Pister’s “special errand” theory.

Pister appealed the jury’s verdict arguing that the trial judge committed reversible error by (1) granting partial summary judgment in favor of Matrix; (2) admitting or excluding certain evidence; and (3) giving erroneous instructions to the jury.  The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the trial level orders.

Before the jury trial began, Pister voluntarily dismissed the Estate from the case. In April 2011, Matrix filed a motion for summary judgment. In that motion, it was asserted that Brian was not an employee of Matrix at the time of the crash because he had not yet arrived at his designated jobsite.  Pister filed a response to the motion for summary judgment arguing that Brian was within the scope of his employment, both as a “traveling employee” and because he was on a “special errand” for Matrix to deliver equipment to the jobsite.  The trial judge determined that it would not allow Pister to present the “traveling employee” theory of liability to the jury because that theory was limited to only workers’ compensation cases. The court also ruled on the “special errand” theory by saying it was a fact issue that the jury would decide. 

At a pretrial conference in February 2012, the trial judge granted partial summary judgment regarding the hearing of May 2011 with respect to the “traveling employee” theory of liability, granted Matrix’s motion to prohibit Pister from arguing Matrix was liable for Brian driving under the influence of a drug, but then extended the ruling to prohibit all mention of Brian’s drug use; and (3) allowed evidence that the Estate was once a party to the case. Apparently, Brian was using a legal prescription for Oxycodone. 

The case went to trial before a jury in February 2012.  The central issue at trial was whether Brian was in the scope of his employment with Matrix at the time of the crash.  Brian was transporting welding rods and other equipment in his vehicle to the jobsite.  At trial, Pister presented evidence through witnesses that a Matrix employee had requested that Brian bring welding rods and other equipment to the Champaign, Ill., jobsite. 

Pister tendered Illinois Pattern Jury Instructions, Civil No. 556 and a modified version of No. 50.06.01 (Supp.) 2009 (hereinafter, IPI Civil (Supp. 2009) Nos. 50.06 and 50.06.01 regarding agency law. The court rejected those instructions and instead tendered only a non-IPI jury instruction defining the “special errand” theory of liability. After the jury’s verdict in favor of Matrix, Pister submitted a posttrial motion about alleged trial errors made by the court in jury instructions.  An appeal was taken by Pister when his post-trial motion was denied.

The appellate court analyzed the facts in this case and  law by determining that the issue was whether the court could extend the “traveling employee” principle to tort liability.  Thus the determination was to decide whether the law of workers’ compensation cases that allow for “traveling employees” to recover under the act should apply to tort cases.  The Illinois Appellate Court declined to extend the workers’ compensation act law to “traveling employees” to tort cases because the purpose of the act and principles behind respondeat superior liability are different.  Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s and jury’s findings.

Tisha Pister, for the Estate of Jeffrey Pister, deceased v. Matrix Service Industrial Contractors, Inc., No. 2013 IL App. (4th) 120782 (September 6, 2013).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling worker injuries, construction site injuries and 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 37 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Morton Grove, Harwood Heights, Harvard, Blue Island, Calumet Park, Bridgeview, Justice, Worth, Chicago (Lake View, Lincoln Square, McKinley Park), Fox River Grove, Evergreen Park, Niles, Northbrook and Round Lake, Ill.

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