Failure to Separate Plaintiffs’ Damages on Illinois Jury Verdict Forms Leads to Reversal By Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Happel v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago reversed a district court jury verdict on the grounds that the lower court did not separate the damages for a husband and wife on plaintiffs’ jury verdict forms. Based on the lack of separate jury verdict forms, a new trial was ordered in Happel v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., No. 07-2264.

Happel is an Illinois prescription error case filed by a husband and wife, Kent and Heidi Happel, against a Wal-Mart pharmacy that filled a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory prescription for the plaintiff wife even though it was aware she was allergic to it. As a result of taking the medication, Heidi Happel went into anaphylactic shock. She required emergent hospitalization and ventilation as a result of the Illinois prescription error. She continues to suffer from memory loss, incontinence, seizures, nightmares, and depression.

The Illinois prescription error claim alleged that the pharmacy was aware of plaintiff’s drug allergy. The Wal-Mart pharmacist had been warned about Heidi’s allergy and actually received an electronic alert that the drug was contraindicated for her. In addition, every time Heidi filled her past prescriptions at this pharmacy she advised the pharmacist of her allergy, which was something her husband, Kent, also did when he filled the prescription at issue in this case. However, despite these warnings the pharmacist went ahead and filled the prescription, which in turn caused Heidi’s injuries.

At trial plaintiffs’ lawyers proposed a verdict form for the jury that separated the damages for Kent and Heidi’s separate claims. However, the district judge rejected the plaintiffs’ proposed verdict forms and instead used a verdict form that contained only one line for compensatory damages that could be awarded to the plaintiffs as one unit.

Even though the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs, the plaintiffs filed a post-trial motion for a new trial regarding the damages. When this motion was denied by the district court, plaintiffs filed an appeal that argued that the district court erred when it used a single verdict form that did not separate Heidi and Kent’s unique damages.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the plaintiffs and held that the Illinois district court’s verdict form “gives us no insight as to how the jury allocated the damages among Heidi’s and Kent’s claims.” According to the appellate court, Illinois courts generally do not combine settlement amounts based on the argument that it should be set off simply because the plaintiffs are a family unit. When this is done, as it was the Happel trial, the thought is that plaintiffs’ damages could be lower based on the way the jury verdict form combines damages which should in fact be separate. Therefore, the court ordered a new trial on damages in Happel.
Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois prescription error lawsuits for over 30 years, serving those areas in and around Cook County, including Barrington, Lisle, Skokie, and Blue Island.

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