Illinois Appellate Court Reverses $1 Million Jury Verdict Because of Confusing and Ambiguous Special Interrogatory

Michelle Morrison, a senior account representative in the Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital’s billing department, sent a woman referred to here as “Jane Doe” and others “vile and shocking” letters on the hospital’s letterhead. Morrison was fired in July 2010 for using the hospital’s computer system for personal searches.

After this incident, Doe filed a lawsuit against the hospital alleging that Morrison’s actions “severely and adversely impacted the health and well-being of the [plaintiff].” Plaintiff claimed that Morrison’s letter was harassing and caused her emotional injuries.”

Morrison was criminally charged and eventually pleaded guilty to felony forgery charges. She testified at her deposition that she took home 50 patient records while she was employed. The hospital denied liability and claimed that Morrison’s “rogue behavior and criminal conduct” was the proximate cause of Doe’s injuries.

Alexian Brothers also filed a contribution claim against Morrison and asked jurors to apportion fault between itself and Morrison, making her a third-party defendant.

At the end of trial, jurors were given instructions as to the plaintiff’s claims against the hospital, the hospital’s contribution claim against Morrison and a special interrogatory, which asked, “Was Michelle Morrison the sole proximate cause of [the plaintiff’s] claimed injuries?”

The instructions also stated that Doe alleged that numerous actions by the hospital were the “proximate cause” of her injuries. After deliberations, the jurors signed a verdict in favor of Doe for $1 million in damages and found in favor of the hospital on its contribution claim against Morrison. The jury found the hospital to be 20% liable and Morrison 80% liable.

The jury determined the hospital had not acted with intention or indifference to harm the plaintiff.

Finally, jurors also answered ‘yes’ to the special interrogatory, finding Morrison was the sole proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.

As a result, the trial judge determined that the special interrogatory was proper because the hospital’s defense was that Morrison was the sole proximate cause of Doe’s injuries. However, after the jury’s verdict for Doe, the trial court determined that the verdict was inconsistent with the jury’s answer to the special interrogatory. The trial judge then entered judgment in favor of the hospital on the basis that the special interrogatory was controlling. It was not clear what part of the verdict was being tested by the special interrogatory. It might relate to the employee’s actions in sending the harassing letter to Doe.

“The special interrogatory in this case concerned an ultimate issue of fact and tested the general verdict. It [the special interrogatory] was clearly worded and in proper form. The special interrogatory properly controlled the verdict,” which was the language written in the order by the trial court in finding in favor of the hospital in spite of the jury’s verdict.

Doe appealed the trial judge’s decision, arguing jurors were likely confused by the special interrogatory because the instructions did not include a definition of “sole proximate cause.” During the deliberations, the jury asked the judge if they were required to fill out the special interrogatory form. Doe contended such a question was the jury’s way of showing their confusion.
The appellate court panel wrote that it did not believe the question was procedural and instead it was “much more likely that the jury was seeking clarification because it was confused by the sole proximate cause special interrogatory after just apportioning fault between the hospital and Morrison.”

The Illinois Appellate Court opinion written by Justice Cunningham, cited Jacobs v. Yellow Cab Affiliation, Inc., 2017 IL App (1st) 151107 for comparison. In the Jacobs case, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision to reject the special interrogatory because the question was too broad.

“Similarly here, it is not clear what part of the verdict is being tested by the special interrogatory. As in Jacobs, the special interrogatory in this case was broad in the context of all the other instructions, and thus it is impossible to determine what the jury understood to be the meaning of sole proximate cause.” The opinion of the Illinois Appellate Court was unanimous.

A report of this case, published in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, Aug. 1, 2019, also included information about House Bill 2233. This bill would amend how special interrogatories are written and submitted to a jury and has passed both houses of the Illinois General Assembly awaiting signature by the governor. The bill would direct jurors to reconsider their verdict if their general verdict is inconsistent with their answer to the special interrogatory question. The bill also allows lawyers to warn jurors about the result of an inconsistent verdict during arguments, which they could not do previously.

The appellate court concluded that the special interrogatory was not in proper form and should not have been given to the jury. The appeals panel reversed the trial court’s judgment in favor of the hospital and remanded the case back to the trial court for a new trial.

Jane Doe v. Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital, 2019 IL App (1st) 180955 (July 26, 2019).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling medical malpractice lawsuits, birth injury lawsuits, traumatic brain injury cases and nursing home negligence lawsuits for individuals, families and loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the carelessness or negligence of a medical provider for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Schaumburg, Schiller Park, Bolingbrook, Bensenville, Elmhurst, Elmwood Park, Melrose Park, Arlington Heights, Hoffman Estates, Inverness, Crestwood, Chicago (Rogers Park, Albany Park, Jefferson Park, Little Italy, Lawndale, Englewood, South Shore, Roscoe Village, Hyde Park), Wilmette, Winnetka, Glenview, Worth and Blue Island, Ill.

Robert D. Kreisman has been an active member of the Illinois and Missouri bars since 1976.

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