Jury Finds for Defendants Where Court Refuses Jury Instruction on Negligence

On Dec. 1, 2008, Sarah Conway, Kathleen O’Toole and Mary Heidkamp were passengers in Joan Steenveld’s car when it was broadsided by the defendant, Lynnard McCullough, who was driving a tractor-trailer. All but Steenveld perished in the crash. Both of the vehicles skidded off a snowy, icy road.  Steenveld’s southbound car skidded over the center line in front of McCullough’s northbound truck; he was trying to avoid a head-on collision.  Steenveld steered to the right, driving into an empty field, but her car also went off the road again winding up in the truck’s path. 

The attorney for the estates of the deceased plaintiffs asked the Cook County judge to instruct the jurors that one or more of the defendants was liable to the plaintiffs.  It was alleged that either Steenveld or McCullough or both must have been driving too fast for conditions and thus, were liable for the deaths of the decedents.  The speed limit at the place of the crashes was 55 mph, although Steenveld testified she was going 35 mph. 

Two witnesses testified that McCullough’s speed was 40-45 mph.  In addition, there was an expert who testified that McCullough’s evasive maneuver was appropriate.  Without an objection, the Cook County trial judge granted a motion in limine that requested an order barring “any argument, evidence, reference or suggestion that anything other than the alleged negligence of the defendants caused or contributed to cause plaintiffs’ injuries.”

The attorneys for the estates of Conway, O’Toole and Heidkamp asked the trial judge to deliver a jury instruction that said:

“The court has determined that this collision is not one that occurred in the absence of negligence and that one or more of the defendants are liable to the plaintiffs.  You will need to decide whether defendant Joan Steenveld or defendant Lynnard McCullough . . . or all of the defendants are liable to the plaintiffs.”

The judge refused to give this instruction. The jury returned a verdict in favor of all of the defendants.

The court relied on the case of Millett v. Radosta, 84 Ill.App. 3d 5 (1980), where the defendant in that case drove his car into plaintiff’s truck, injuring plaintiff.  Defendant claimed that he lost control of the car because of a steering defect.  The plaintiff truck driver sued the driver of the car manufacturer and the dealer who sold him the car.  After a verdict in favor of plaintiff, the defendants appealed.  The court reasoned that a verdict for all of the defendants could not stand and reversed the verdict for plaintiff ordering a new trial. 

In this case, the plaintiffs argued that the three passengers could not have been guilty of any negligence.  Therefore, the trial court should have instructed the jury that it could not return a verdict in favor of all of the defendants.  There was no issue of comparative fault or contributory negligence.  In the Millett case, the injuries arose from either a negligent driver, a negligent manufacturer that sold a defective car or a negligent dealer that sold the car and did not advise the driver that it should not be driven. 

In this case, the court held that neither of the vehicles was defective and no one alleged advance knowledge by either driver of any mechanical problems that could have caused the accident.  The only allegations of negligence involved both drivers traveling too fast.  Therefore, unlike in the Millett case, it could not be said that under the conditions present on December 1, 2008, an accident could not have happened unless one or both of the parties were negligent. 

In other words, the accident could have happened even though neither party acted negligently.  The court held that there was a substantial amount of disputed evidence as to whether Steenveld or McCullough was driving too fast for conditions and whether McCullough should have driven off the highway to try to avoid the crash.  As a result, it fell within the province of the jury to determine the negligence, if any, of the defendants.  Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to grant plaintiff’s requested jury instruction.  The verdict in favor of the defendants was affirmed.  

Egan v. McCullough, 2013 IL App (1st) 122475 (Dec. 11, 2013).

Kreisman Law Offices has been successfully handling car accident cases, wrongful death cases and truck accidents 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 South Chicago, Hinsdale, Westmont, Rosemont, Park Ridge, Park Forest, Lincolnwood, Lincolnshire, Morton Grove and Blue Island, Ill.

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