The Illinois Supreme Court denied the Chicago Housing Authority’s motion to reverse a lower court’s $16.5 million verdict to a tenant who’d lived in a Chicago apartment with lead-based paint for several years in Donald Howell v. Chicago Housing Authority, No. 112321.
The Chicago personal injury lawsuit was brought by Latanya Turks on behalf of her son, Donald Howell, and alleged that the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) had used lead-based paint in the residence she rented. In addition, Turks alleged that as a result of living in an apartment with lead-based paint, her son suffered permanent mental and physical disabilities due to lead poisoning.
Ms. Turks was living in the apartment while she was pregnant with her son, Donald, and they remained in the same apartment for the next several years. During that time, the lead paint was peeling and cracking, making it even more dangerous. A few years after Donald was born he was diagnosed with lead poisoning based on elevated lead levels in his bloodstream.
Prior to the trial, the CHA admitted liability, acknowledging that the relevant apartment did in fact have lead-based paint and that Ms. Turks was unaware of its presence. Therefore, the jury was only required to decide whether there was a relationship between the lead-based paint and Howell’s injuries, and if so, how much money does the CHA owe Howell.
At the time of the Chicago personal injury trial, Donald Howell had been diagnosed with significant language, mental, and social retardation and it was predicted that he would require 24-hour care for his conditions. Plaintiff brought two medical experts to testify that Donald’s delays were the result of exposure to lead both in the womb and after his birth. Not only did the medical experts point to the positive blood test for lead poisoning that was taken shortly before Donald turned three, but also to his small head circumference at birth and low birth weight as evidence of his continual lead poisoning.
In response, the defendants’ experts argued that Donald’s defects could be the result of a genetic disorder and that the relationship to lead poisoning was unfounded. This line of testimony goes to the defense’s argument that there was no link between the lead poisoning and Donald’s condition and that while the CHA knowingly rented an apartment with lead-based paint, that doing so did not result in any harm to the plaintiff.
However, the Chicago jury did not agree with the CHA and entered a $16.5 million verdict in favor of the minor plaintiff. Included in the jury award were payments for past and future medical bills, along with $2 million for loss of future earnings for Donald. The CHA sought to reverse the jury verdict and filed a motion with the Illinois Appellate Court, who affirmed the jury verdict. The CHA then appealed that decision to the Illinois Supreme Court.
In its appeal, the CHA was not seeking a retrial, but was in fact asking the Supreme Court to enter a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, also called “n.o.v.” for the Latin non obstante veredicto. A judgment n.o.v. occurs when a jury enters a verdict that is contrary to matters of law. Oftentimes this occurs when a judge fails to instruct jurors to enter a directed verdict, where the judge informs the jury how they should decide and then allows them to work out the damages. The purpose of a n.o.v. is to allow a judge or court to overrule a jury verdict that does not comply with the rules of law.
The CHA’s argument for why the Illinois Supreme Court should enter a judgment n.o.v. rests on the defense’s position that the plaintiff’s medical experts’ testimony was speculative and failed to provide adequate evidence establishing a link between the lead paint and Donald’s mental and physical retardation.
In its review of the Howell verdict, the Illinois Supreme Court first set out the conditions in which a judgment n.o.v. is entered. Citing Pedrick v. Peoria & E. R. Co., 37 Ill. 2d 494, 510 (1967) and Maple v. Gustafson, 151 Ill. 2d 445, 452 (1992), the Illinois Supreme Court stated that a n.o.v. is entered “only in those cases in which all of the evidence, when viewed in its aspect most favorable to the opponent, so overwhelmingly favors movant that no contrary verdict based on that evidence could ever stand.”
Likewise, Maple also states that a court should not “enter a judgment n.o.v. if there is any evidence, together with reasonable inferences to be drawn therefrom, demonstrating a substantial factual dispute, or where the assessment of credibility of the witnesses or the determination regarding conflicting evidence is decisive to the outcome.”
So while the plaintiff’s case establishing the relationship between the lead paint and Donald’s disabilities might not have been a very strong one, neither was the case put forth by the defense that there was no relationship between the lead poisoning and the birth defects and disabilities. The Illinois Supreme Court did not find any overwhelming evidence that the jury verdict represented a gross departure from the law and affirmed the jury verdict.
Another reason that the Supreme Court might have been reluctant to overturn the jury verdict is that in general courts try to uphold a jury’s decision. In its decision, the court cautioned that “a trial court cannot reweigh the evidence and set aside a verdict merely because the jury could have drawn different inferences or conclusions, or because the court feels that other results are more reasonable.” In short, courts should not overturn or question a jury’s decision unless there has been a drastic departure from the law. The court did not find that in Howell, therefore the jury verdict of $16.5 million stands.
Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois personal injury matters for families and individuals in and around Chicago for more than 35 years, including Melrose Park, Harwood Heights, Niles, Morton Grove, and Northfield.
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