$23.22 Million Joint and Several Jury Verdict Reversed and Remanded by Illinois Appellate Court

The defendant, Toad L. Dragonfly Express Inc., appealed an award of contribution entered against it and in favor of the defendant C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc. and other corporate entities collectively, CHR.

After the jury trial, judgments totaling $23,225,000 were entered, jointly and severally against Dragonfly and its owner, Luann G. Whitener-Black who is now deceased, DeAn Henry, and CHR in three consolidated tort actions stemming from the fatal automobile crash. Henry was the driver of the semi-tractor involved in the incident. Dragonfly is a federally licensed motor carrier that had leased Henry’s semi-tractor at the time of the accident and CHR was the broker of the load Henry was carrying at the time.

After CHR fully satisfied the tort judgments (including postjudgment interest), CHR sought contribution from Dragonfly under the Illinois Joint Tortfeasor Contribution Act (Act) (740 ILCS 100/0.01 et seq. (West 2014)). The trial court granted CHR’s contribution claim against Dragonfly for 50% of the jury’s total award in the underlying tort actions, including post-judgment interest. Dragonfly then appealed the trial court’s order granting contribution to CHR. Dragonfly argued that CHR is not entitled to contribution from Dragonfly because the Act creates a right of contribution based upon comparative fault, and neither CHR nor Dragonfly were at fault in this case.

Rather, each party was a blameless principal that was vicariously liable for the fault of the same agent (Henry). Dragonfly also argued that Section 2(e) of the Act bars CHR from seeking contribution from Dragonfly because (1) Section 2(e) provides that a tortfeasor who settles with a claimant “is not entitled to recover contribution from another tortfeasor whose liability is not extinguished by the settlement” (740 ILCS 100/2(e) (West 2014)) and (2) the three plaintiffs each settled with CHR without expressly releasing Dragonfly from liability.  In the alternative, Dragonfly argued that, even if CHR was entitled to contribution, the trial court erred in awarding postjudgment interest as part of the contribution award because such interest is not collectible under the Act.

On the other hand, CHR argued that the trial court’s judgment should be affirmed because Dragonfly admitted both negligence and fault at trial, thereby acknowledging that it was directly liable for its own negligence, not merely vicariously for Henry’s negligence. Moreover, CHR maintained that, even if Dragonfly were liable only vicariously, contribution would still be available against Dragonfly under the Illinois appellate court’s reasoning in the case of Equistar Chemicals, L.P. v. BMW Constructors, Inc., 353 Ill.App.3d 593 (2004).

CHR also cross-appealed the trial court’s contribution judgment. In its cross-appeal, CHR argued that the trial court should have granted contribution against Dragonfly for 100% of the tort judgments (instead of 50% awarded by the trial court) because Dragonfly’s admissions of fault and governing federal regulations made Dragonfly 100% responsible for the judgments. In the alternative, CHR contended that, because Henry’s portion of the common liability is “uncollectible,” section 3 of the Act required Dragonfly to pay contribution to CHR for Dragonfly’s own lability based on fault plus one-half of any share of fault contributable to Henry, including applicable postjudgment interest on CHR.

CHR was a logistics company and a federally licensed freight broker that provided a variety of transportation-related services. CHR sells its services to shippers or other customers who need to transport goods. Then the company contracts with licensed motor carriers to transport the goods.

In 2004, Jewel Food Stores (Jewel) entered into a delivery contract with CHR under which CHR purchased produce from Jewel, stored it, then arranged for transportation to Jewel’s various grocery stores. At that time, Henry owned her own semi-tractor and leased it to Dragonfly, a federally licensed motor carrier. Dragonfly gave Henry permission to use Dragonfly’s carrier authority to book and deliver loads on her own. On March 29, 2004, Henry contracted CHR and agreed to deliver a load of potatoes from Idaho to CHR’s warehouse in Bolingbrook, Ill., where they would be repackaged and shipped to various Jewel grocery stores.

On the morning of April 1, 2004, Henry was driving a tractor-trailer containing CHR’s potatoes northbound on Interstate 55 en route to Bolingbrook. As Henry approached Plainfield, she noticed that the vehicles ahead of her were not moving. Henry was not able to stop her truck and ran over several vehicles, causing a multi-car crash. Joseph Sperl and Thomas Sanders died in the collision and William Taluc sustained serious injuries.

William and Skye Taluc and the estates of Sperl and Sanders sued Henry, Dragonfly and CHR for wrongful death and personal injuries sustained as a result of Henry’s negligence. Henry admitted negligence in liability at trial and Dragonfly admitted liability and a “united” negligence with Henry. CHR denied liability and sought contribution from Henry and Dragonfly for any judgment entered against it.  The trial court severed CHR’s claim for contribution.

The principle issue litigated at trial was whether the evidence was enough to establish an agency relationship between CHR and Henry, thereby rendering CHR vicariously liable for Henry’s negligence under the doctrine of respondeat superior. During the jury instruction conference, CHR proposed a verdict form that would have asked the jury to allocate fault between Henry, Dragonfly and CHR under Section 2-1117 of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-1117).

The trial court rejected CHR’s proposed verdict form. The jury subsequently found that an agency relationship existed between CHR and Henry and entered verdicts in the three consolidated cases totaling $23,775,000 jointly and severally, against Henry, Dragonfly and CHR. The trial court subsequently reduced those verdicts by $500,000 in its post-trial order because it found that the plaintiffs had failed to prove conscious pain and suffering of the deceased individuals.

CHR appealed. The appellate court upheld the jury’s finding of an agency relationship between Henry and CHR because the evidence established that CHR had controlled the manner of Henry’s work performance in the delivery of the loads it brokered and also controlled the manner of payment.  hat appellate court decision was handed down in 2011 under the name of Sperl v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc., 408 Ill.App.3d 1051, 1056-60 (2011).

In October 2011, CHR paid more than $28 million to the three plaintiffs in satisfaction of the judgments entered in favor of each plaintiff, including all of the postjudgment interest that had accrued on those judgments at the time.

On Jan. 20, 2015, the trial court issued a written “Final Judgment Order,” which incorporated the Sept. 12, 2014 order by reference and entered judgment in favor of CHR and against Dragonfly on Count 1 of CHR’s cross-claim for contribution in the amount of $14,326,665.54.  That amount constituted one-half of the judgment paid by CHR to the three plaintiffs, including one-half of the accumulated post-judgment interest. This appeal followed.

Dragonfly argued on appeal that the trial court erred as a matter of law in granting contribution in favor of CHR. Dragonfly maintained that contribution was available under the Act only where there is a basis for comparing fault along joint tortfeasors and where one tortfeasor has paid more than its pro rata share of the judgment based upon its relative culpability. Dragonfly argued that, because CHR and Dragonfly were found liable only vicariously (i.e., each was found liable based entirely upon its agency relationship with Henry rather than on any independent negligent conduct of its own), neither party was “at fault,” and there is no basis for comparing the relative fault of the parties. Dragonfly further contended that, because Henry’s negligent conduct caused the accident and CHR and Dragonfly were each 100% liable for Henry’s negligence, CHR did not pay more than its pro rata share of common liability even though it paid the entire judgment.

The appellate court reviewed the trial judge’s construction of the Act and its ruling on other questions of law. The appeals panel found that when a principal is held vicariously liable for its agent’s conduct (for example, when an employer is held liable for its employee’s negligence under the doctrine of respondeat superior), the principal is not “at fault in fact.” American National Bank & Trust Co. v. Columbus-Cuneo-Cabrini Medical Center, 154 Ill.2d 347 (1992). The principal has not committed any independent tortious act that harmed the plaintiff and that renders the employer directly liable for such harm. Rather, liability for the agent’s negligent conduct is imposed upon the principal as a matter of policy based solely upon the principal’s relationship with the agent. In such cases, “[o]nly the agent is at fault in fact for the plaintiff’s injuries”; the principal is “blameless.”  Thus, while the doctrine of vicarious liability may render a principal liable to injured third parties as a matter of policy, the principal “is not thereby considered a wrongdoer and would not be a ‘tortfeasor’ for purposes of the Contribution Act.” Bean v. Missouri Pacific R.R. Co., 171 IL App (3d) 620, 625 (1988).

Because the principal’s liability is entirely derivative upon the agent’s conduct, there is no basis for comparing the principal’s “fault” to the agent’s fault; the principal is liable to the exact same extent that the agent is liable even though only the agent is at fault in fact.  Both CHR and Dragonfly stand in identical positions. Both entities are 100% liable for Henry’s negligence by operation of law, but neither party is at fault in fact. The only party shown to be at fault in fact was Henry. Thus, for contribution purposes, both Dragonfly and CHR are “blameless” and there is no basis to compare their respective “fault” as required by the Act. Moreover, because Dragonfly and CHR are each 100% liable for the damages caused by Henry, neither would pay more than its pro rata share of the common liability even if it paid the entire judgment.  Accordingly, under the facts presented in this case, (i.e., one principal seeking contribution from another principal where both principals are liable only vicariously for the actions of the same agent who was the sole cause in fact of the accident), the Act provides no remedy.

For those reasons, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the judgment of the Circuit Court awarding contribution to CHR and sent the case back to the Circuit Court for further proceeding. In other words, the trial court’s contribution award between CHR and Dragonfly was reversed.

There was a dissent filed by Justice Schmitt.  The majority opinion was written by Illinois Appellate Court Justice William Holdridge.

Sperl v. Henry, 2017 IL App (3d) 150097.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling catastrophic injury lawsuits, semi-tractor accident cases, motorcycle accident cases, bicycle accident cases and car crash cases for individuals, families and loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Bridgeview, Romeoville, Buffalo Grove, Wheeling, Deerfield, Vernon Hills, Lincolnshire, Niles, Cicero, Calumet City, Midlothian, Brookfield, Lockport, Highland Park, Lisle, Chicago (Hyde Park, University of Chicago, South Chicago, South Loop, Southport, Kenwood, Kilbourn Park, Roscoe Village, Ravenswood Gardens, North Park, Norwood Park, Mont Clair, Morgan Park, Little Italy, Lithuanian Plaza, Belmont Gardens, Brighton Park, Canaryville, Cathedral District, Chrysler Village, DePaul University Area, Diversey Harbor, Edgewater, Edison Park, Englewood, Uptown, Sauganash, River North), Evanston, Wheeling, South Holland and South Barrington, Ill.

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