When a civil lawsuit is subject to an appeal, there are typically two outcomes: either the court finds that the trial proceedings were just and legal, thereby putting an end to the case; or the court finds that errors were made at the trial court level and remands the case for a retrial. In the personal injury lawsuit of Michael Petraski, etc. v. Deborah Thedos, etc, et al., 2011 IL App. (1st) 103218
, the Illinois Appellate Court reviewed the case’s trial proceedings a second time. In its most recent review, the court ordered yet another trial for the 2001 intersection accident lawsuit.
Petraski arose out of a 2001 Memorial Day crash involving the plaintiff, Margaret Petraski, and the defendant, Sheriff Officer Deborah Thedos. At the time of the intersection accident, Thedos was responding to a domestic dispute. In order to do so in a speedy fashion, Thedos ran a red light and crashed into Petraski’s vehicle. The impact killed a passenger in Petraski’s car and left Petraski an incomplete quadriplegic.
Following the first Illinois trial, the jury entered a $26.8 million verdict against Thedos and the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. However, the defendants appealed this decision, arguing that the trial judge improperly excluded evidence of Petraski’s alcohol consumption during the hours leading up to the car crash. Therefore, a second trial was initiated which allowed this persuasive evidence. At the conclusion of the second trial, the jury now returned a not guilty verdict in favor of the defendants.
However, plaintiff’s counsel protested this verdict by filing a post-trial motion in which he argued that the defendant’s expert’s testimony regarding Petraski’s alcohol consumption was misleading. Likewise, the plaintiff’s argued that the defense counsel exaggerated the extent of Petraski’s intoxication and then made improper remarks emphasizing her intoxication during his closing remarks.
The court agreed on both counts, reasoning that while it was appropriate for the expert to testify as to the plaintiff’s blood alcohol content, he was not able to testify as to the effect of that alcohol. The court also found the defendant’s closing remarks to be improper in that they asked the jury to make a moral or social judgment when deciding the personal injury case. The trial judge ordered a new trial that would limit the extent of the defendant’s expert’s testimony regarding Petraski’s intoxication as well as the nature of the defendant’s closing remarks.
In addition, the judge ruled that Petraski was incorrectly barred from presenting expert testimony regarding Thedos’s mental health problems. This ruling was in response to the plaintiff’s argument that Thedos’s mental health problems caused her to drive to the nonemergency domestic dispute as if it were an emergency, thereby causing the auto accident with Petraski.
In its review of the Illinois auto accident lawsuit, the Illinois Appellate Court first considered whether or not the defendant’s closing remarks were inappropriate. The court agreed that the defense counsel’s remarks were meant to establish the verdict in terms of a moral or social judgment and were therefore meant to “inflame the passions or prejudices of the jury.” The court pointed out that such remarks can constitute reversible error based on prior Illinois case law and that the determination regarding whether such comments are inflammatory is at the trial judge’s discretion. Therefore, the appellate court affirmed the trial judge’s ruling in favor of a new trial based on the defense counsel’s improper closing remarks.
The court then went on to review the two other alleged errors regarding expert testimony. To examine whether or not the defendant’s expert was correct in testifying regarding the extent of Petraski’s intoxication the court referred to section 11-501.2(b)(3) of the Illinois Vehicle Code (625 ILCS 5/11–501.2 (b)(3) (West 2000)). It states that a blood alcohol content (BAC) above 0.08 allows only the presumption that an individual was “under the influence of alcohol,” not that the individual was in fact impaired or intoxicated.
In addition, the defendant’s expert failed to provide any evidence that Petraski was speeding or driving erratically at the time of the intersection accident. The only evidence the expert relied upon in preparing his opinion was a blood sample showing her BAC. And because this was not enough to support his opinion that Petraski was intoxicated, the court affirmed the trial court’s ruling that this portion of the defense expert’s testimony was unreliable and unfairly prejudiced the jury.
In its review of the last claim, the appellate court began by supposing that the plaintiff’s purpose in introducing testimony regarding Thedos’s mental health history was to show that her conduct was willful and wanton. Illinois law defines “willful and wanton” conduct as:
a course of action which shows *** an utter indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of others or their property. 745 ILCS 10/1-210 (West 2010).
However, Illinois does not generally allow mental health expert testimony as a means of proving willful and wanton conduct in personal injury lawsuits. Rather, Illinois courts have traditionally used an analysis of the parties’ actions at the time of the incident as means of showing willful and wanton conduct. Nelson v. Thomas, 282 Ill. App. 3d 818 (1996); Breck v. Cortez, 141 Ill. App. 3d 351 (1986). Therefore, the court ruled that in order to prove Thedos’s behavior was willful and wanton the plaintiff should provide testimony as to her actions at the time of the car crash; testimony regarding the nature of Thedos’s mental health state was irrelevant and therefore should not be introduced at trial.
Therefore, at its conclusion of its review of the trial judge’s post trial rulings, the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the court’s rulings on all counts. A third, and hopefully final, personal injury trial will be held that corrects the nature of the defense’s closing arguments, limits the nature of the defense’s expert regarding Petraski’s intoxication, and excludes the plaintiff’s expert’s testimony regarding Thedos’s mental health.
Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois automobile crash lawsuits for individuals and families for more than 35 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and surrounding areas, including Berwyn, Highland Park, LaGrange, Vernon Hills, Buffalo Grove, and Summit.
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