20 Million Jury Verdict Reinstated on Substitution of Judge Issue – Powell v. Dean Foods Co.

In TV courtroom dramas, the story always ends with the jury verdict. However, in real life, sometimes the jury verdict is just the beginning. Lawyers can appeal a jury verdict with the hope of reversing the verdict, or even of obtaining a new trial. And while most appeals only make it to the appellate court level, some are taken all the way to the supreme court.

In the wrongful death lawsuit of Tracey Powell for the Estate of Adam McDonald, deceased v. Dean Foods Company, et al., 2012 IL 111714, the plaintiffs received a $20 million jury verdict. However, the case did not stop there. One of the defendants filed an appeal, which resulted in a reversal of the $20 million verdict and a new trial. The plaintiffs then appealed that decision to the Illinois Supreme Court and were eventually able to get the original $20 million verdict reinstated. So while the plaintiffs were left with the initial outcome, it took a much longer time for them to claim their award.

The case facts in Powell involved a 2002 Indiana truck accident in which three people were killed. Christina Chakonas was attempting to make a left turn after stopping at a stop sign when she was struck by a tractor-trailer driven by Jamie L. Reeves. Chakons and her two passengers, Adam McDonald and Diana Kakidas, were killed. A wrongful death lawsuit was filed against Reeves, his employer, and the company that owned the goods he was transporting.

The Cook County jury awarded the plaintiffs $20 million; however, the appellate court later reversed this verdict on the basis that the trial judge had erred in denying one of the defendants motion for substitution of judge. According to the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure §2-1001(a)(2), a party is entitled to one change of judge as long as no substantial ruling had been made in the case to that time.

Each party is allowed to request a substitution of judge. One of the defendants, Alco of Wisconsin, had requested a substitution of judge; its request was granted. Later in the proceedings, another defendant, Alco, Inc., also made a request for a substitution of judge. The plaintiffs challenged Alco, Inc.’s request on the basis that it was merely an alternate name for Alco of Wisconsin and as such was not entitled to its own request for a substitution of judge.

Upon investigation, it seems that Alco, Inc. had changed its name to Alco of Wisconsin in 1989. Based on this evidence, the trial judge sided with the plaintiff and entered a ruling that Alco of Wisconsin and Alco, Inc. were for all purposes the same entity. Alco, Inc.’s request for a substitution of judge was denied.

A third defendant, Alder Group, then made its own request for a substitution of judge. However, the plaintiff again objected, this time on the basis that a substantial ruling had already been made, i.e. the judge’s ruling on the status of Alco, Inc. The judge again sided with the plaintiff and denied Alder Group’s request for a substitution of judge. The case proceeded to the jury trial, which resulted in the $20 million verdict.

However, because the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that the trial court had improperly denied Alder Group’s request for a substitution of judge the jury verdict was vacated. This is because under Illinois case law, any order entered after an improper denial of a motion to substitute a judge is null and void as a matter of right. The plaintiffs attempted to reinstate the jury verdict by appealing the appellate court’s decision to the Illinois Supreme Court.

While the appellate court focused on whether or not a substantial ruling had been made, the supreme court examined whether the defendants’ appeal was even valid. By the end of the Cook County trial, Alder Group had already been dismissed from the wrongful death case with prejudice, meaning that it no longer had an interest in the case. According to the supreme court’s analysis, this meant that Alder Group no longer had any standing to challenge the denial of its motion for substitution of judge. And if Alder Group could not challenge this denial of substitution, then neither could any of the other defendants.

The supreme court found that all the remaining defendants who had asked for a substitution of judge had been granted one. Therefore, the appellate court should not have vacated the jury verdict on the basis of a denial of a motion to substitute a judge. The supreme court reinstated the $20 million jury verdict against the remaining defendants, i.e. Alco of Wisconsin, Dean Foods, and Jamie Reeves. So after a long battle through the legal system, the plaintiffs were able to reclaim their original jury verdict after all.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois truck accident lawsuits for individuals and families for more than 35 years in and around Chicago, Cook County, and surrounding areas, including Norridge, Oak Brook Terrace, LaGrange, Brookfield, Riverside, Chicago Ridge, and Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood.

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