Cook County Jury Verdict of $897,000 Including $500,000 for Punitive Damages Not Against Manifest Weight of Evidence

In this incident involving a cab and pedestrian, three weeks after Express Cab Dispatch Inc. and Express Cab Company Inc. (collectively, Express Cab), leased Luis Leal a taxi cab, he struck a pedestrian, the plaintiff, Margaret Baumrucker.  She was walking to her job at MacNeal Hospital in Berwyn, Ill. Although Leal was driving at a slow speed, he knocked Baumrucker to the ground injuring her left shoulder.  She had years of physical therapy and, according to her physician, the shoulder injury is permanent and likely will cause her pain and restrict some activities for the rest of her life.

Baumrucker sued Express Cab, alleging negligence and willful and wanton entrustment of the cab to Leal. Baumrucker sued Leal for negligence and argued that Express Cab acted recklessly by choosing not to thoroughly check Leal’s driving record, which would have shown that while living in another state he had been convicted of driving while intoxicated in 2000 and ticketed for speeding more than 85 mph in 2010. Express Cab conceded that Leal was negligent and Baumrucker was injured, but contested the extent of her injuries and the allegations that Express Cab acted willfully and wantonly by entrusting the cab to Leal.

After a jury trial, a verdict was returned in favor of Baumrucker and signed a verdict for $897,740.81, which included $397,740.81 in compensatory damages plus $500,000 in punitive damages.

The trial judge denied the defendants’ motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (N.O.V.) and motion for a new trial on damages.

The defendants contended (i) the evidence did not support the jury’s verdict of the willful and wanton entrustment claim, (ii) Leal’s driving record should not have been admitted into evidence, (iii) the trial court abused its discretion in permitting Baumrucker to present expert testimony that Express Cab had a nondelegable duty to run a background check on prospective drivers, (iv) the compensatory punitive damages awards were excessive.

The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the jury’s verdict finding that it was not against the manifest weight of the evidence, the trial court’s evidentiary rulings and jury instructions were not an abuse of discretion and the damages were reasonable and not excessive.

At pretrial, the defendants presented motions in limine seeking to prevent Baumrucker from presenting an expert witness to testify that Leal was an unqualified and incompetent driver that Express Cab was negligent in entrusting him with a cab and that Express Cab was reckless in choosing not to carefully screen him regarding his previous driving record.  Defendants also wanted to bar mention of Leal’s criminal convictions or arrests and argument that Express Cab was negligent or reckless when it entrusted the cab to Leal.

After hearing the arguments of counsel, the trial judge dismissed the negligent entrustment count of the lawsuit, but allowed Baumrucker to proceed on the willful and wanton entrustment claim. The court also found that Baumrucker’s expert could testify as to his opinions about causation and liability, Express Cab’s screening process and Leal’s driving record.

As for the Illinois common law standard on punitive damages, once the court has determined as a matter of law that punitive damages can be awarded for a particular cause of action, the jury must decide based on the evidence, whether the defendants’ conduct was sufficiently willful or wanton to warrant the imposition of punitive damages. Cirrincione v. Johnson, 184 Ill.2d 109, 116 (1998). The measure of punitive damages to be awarded also presents a question of the jury.  Kelsay v. Motorola, Inc., 74 Ill. 2d 172, 186 (1978).

Generally, punitive damages are allowed sparingly in Illinois.  In cases where punitive damages are allowed to be considered by the court and jury, the defendant’s income and stated value of a company or corporation are relevant and thus made available to the jury or fact-finder as a means to punish the defendant sufficiently to make a difference in its financial standing. In the opinion of many legal authorities, punitive damages should advance in part the public’s interest in retributive justice.

“The amount of a punitive damages award will not be reversed unless it is so excessive that it must have been a result of passion, partiality or corruption.”  Franz v. Calaco Development Corp., 352 Ill. App.3d 1129, 1139 (2004).  The court went on to state that because the jury’s determination of the amount of punitive damages is a predominantly factual issue, we will not reverse a jury’s determination as to the amount of punitive damages unless it is against the manifest weight of the evidence.

The court went on to summarize that as for the disparity between the actual harm and the punitive damages award, defendants argue the $500,000 punitive damages award should be reversed because it bears no range of the actual damages suffered – $25,640.81 in medical expenses.

“First, we note that under the Illinois common law analysis, the amount of punitive damages imposed on a defendant does not have to bear any particular proportion to the size of the plaintiff’s compensatory recovery.  Deal v. Byford, 127 Ill. 2d 192, 204 (1989).  Further, the jury awarded Baumrucker a total of $397,740.81 in compensatory damages, which included the $25,640.81 in medical expenses.  Thus, the punitive damages were about 26% greater than the compensatory damages and not as defendants contend, twenty times greater than the compensatory damages award.”

Accordingly, the court concluded that the punitive damages that were awarded were not so excessive that it must have been a result of passion, partiality or corruption. The court stated that it would not reverse and remand for new damages and thus affirmed the jury’s verdict on both the compensatory damages and punitive damages as entered.

Margaret Baumrucker v. Express Cab Dispatch, Inc., d/b/a Express Cab Company, et al., 2017 IL App (1st) 161278 (July 18, 2017).

Kreisman Law Offices has been successfully handling automobile accident cases, truck-car crash cases, motorcycle accidents, bicycle accidents and pedestrian injury lawsuits for individuals, families and the loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the negligence of another for more than 40 years, in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Inverness, Orland Park, Arlington Heights, Summit, Rolling Meadows, Richton Park, Darien, Deerfield, Glencoe, Westchester, Chicago (Wicker Park, Bucktown, Logan Square, Rogers Park, Lincoln Park, Lake View, South Shore, Bronzeville, Albany Park, Back of the Yards), Barrington, South Holland and Blue Island, Ill.

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