Illinois Appellate Court Reverses Trial Court’s Entry of Judgment Based on Special Interrogatory Favoring the General Verdict

In an unfortunate suicide by Keith Stanphill, a lawsuit was brought by Zachary Stanphill against a social worker, Lori Ortberg, and the hospital with which she was affiliated. She saw Keith Stanphill at Rockford Memorial Hospital just nine days before his suicide. Ortberg is a licensed clinical social worker.

During the jury instruction conference, the defendants requested and were granted leave to submit to the jury a special interrogatory. The special interrogatory followed the format approved by the Illinois Appellate Court in Garcia v. Seneca Nursing Home, 2011 IL App (1st) 103085.

The special interrogatory asked: “Was it reasonably foreseeable to Lori Ortberg on Sept. 30, 2005 that Keith Stanphill would commit suicide on or before Oct. 9, 2005?”

The general verdict was in favor of the plaintiff in the amount of nearly $1.5 million. However, the answer to this special interrogatory that the jury was asked to answer was, “No.” So there were two verdicts: one for the defendants based on the special interrogatory answer given by the jury and the other in favor of the plaintiff based on the general verdict.

The trial judge, basing analysis and decision on the Garcia case, and the jury’s negative answer to the special interrogatory, entered judgment in favor of the defendants.

On appeal, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed, concluding that “the general verdict and the answer to the special interrogatory are not necessarily inconsistent.” And even if they were, “we would still hold that the answer should not prevail over the general verdict, because the special interrogatory was not in the proper form.”

Special interrogatories are designed to be the “guardian of the integrity of a general verdict in a civil jury trial,” and they “test the general verdict against the jury’s determination as to one or more specific issues of ultimate fact.” Simmons v. Garces, 198 Ill.2d 541 (2002).

As Section 2-1108 of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure explains, an answer to a special interrogatory controls the judgment when it is “inconsistent” with the general verdict. The special interrogatory controls, however, only when it is “clearly and absolutely irreconcilable with the general verdict.” Simmons, 198 Ill.2d at 556.

In the Simmons case, the Illinois Supreme Court stated: “If a special interrogatory does not cover all the issues submitted to the jury and a ‘reasonable hypothesis’ exists or allows the special finding to be construed consistently with the general verdict, they are not ‘absolutely irreconcilable’ and the special finding will not control. In determining whether answers to special interrogatories are inconsistent with a general verdict, all reasonable presumptions are exercised in favor of the general verdict.” Id.

“A special interrogatory is in proper form if (1) it relates to an ultimate issue of fact upon which the rights of the parties depend, and (2) an answer responsive thereto is inconsistent with some general verdict that might be returned.” Simmons, 198 Ill.2d at 563. In addition, the interrogatory “should be a single question, stated in terms that are simple, unambiguous and understandable; it should not be repetitive, confusing or misleading.” Id.

In this case, the special interrogatory the jury was asked to answer was not in proper form because it did not answer whether the suicide was foreseeable as the type of harm that a reasonable person (or a reasonable licensed clinical social worker) would expect to see as a likely result of her conduct. Rather, the interrogatory asked whether Keith’s suicide was foreseeable to Ortberg. By substituting “Lori Ortberg” for a “reasonable person” or a “reasonable licensed clinical social worker,” the interrogatory distorted the law and became ambiguous and misleading to the jury.

The Illinois Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the appropriate test for foreseeability is whether a reasonable person would anticipate the harm that occurs to the plaintiff. The reference here was to the case of Chicago v. Beretta, 2013 Ill.2d 351 (2004). The relevant inquiry in a special interrogatory is whether the injury is of a type that a reasonable person would see as a likely result of his or her conduct.

For the reasons stated, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the Circuit Court of Winnebago County with instructions to enter judgment for the plaintiff on the general verdict.

Stanphill v. Ortberg, 2017 IL App (2d) 161086 (Oct. 31, 2017).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling medical malpractice lawsuits, birth trauma injury cases, hospital negligence lawsuits and wrongful death cases for individuals, family 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 Itasca, Bloomingdale, Round Lake, Gurnee, Crystal Lake, Harvey, Naperville, New Lenox, Lansing, Lemont, Chicago (Rogers Park, Englewood, Austin, Little Italy, Chinatown, Logan Square), Lincolnshire, Zion, Waukegan and Frankfort, Ill.

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