Scaffolding Death of Construction Worker Case Reviewed By Illinois Supreme Court For Sole Proximate Cause

The Illinois Supreme Court is in the process of reviewing an Illinois wrongful death case involving a construction worker who fell to his death from a scaffold. The case of Ready v. United/Goedecke Services, Inc., No. 108910 had already been reviewed by the Illinois Supreme Court and remanded to the Appellate Court. However, Ready returned to the Illinois Supreme Court for review after the Illinois Appellate Court disregarded the higher court’s mandate.

In Ready, the Illinois wrongful death claim was brought by the construction worker’s widow against the owner of the plant where decedent was working, the general contractor for the construction job, and a scaffolding subcontractor. Prior to the 2003 Cook County trial both the plant owner and the general contractor settled with the decedent’s widow regarding the Illinois construction site injury.

However, the scaffolding contractor elected to go to trial where a $14 million verdict was entered in favor of decedent’s estate. The jury did find that the plaintiff-decedent contributed to his own fall, valuing his contributory-negligence for the construction site injury at 35%. Therefore, since the plaintiff-decedent was 35% responsible, the $14 million verdict was reduced by 35%, or $4.2 million. The verdict was further reduced by the value of the settlements already secured by plaintiff so that in the end the verdict was reduced by almost $8 million.

The defendants appealed the verdict to the First District Appellate Court who sided with the defendant and ordered a new trial. The Appellate Court’s decision was based on its sense that the jury should have been allowed to consider the degree of fault attributable to all the settling defendants and not just the scaffolding contractor in the Illinois wrongful death case.

In addition, the Appellate Court held that the trial judge should consider whether the new jury should be given a sole proximate cause jury instruction. At the trial level, the judge determines what instructions, or directions, are given to the jury when they consider their verdict. A sole proximate cause jury instruction directs the jury that it should rule in favor of the defendant if the plaintiff’s injuries, in this case death, were caused solely by some party other than the defendant.

However, the case did not immediately return to the lower court for a new trial because the plaintiff appealed the Appellate Court’s decision to the Illinois Supreme Court. The Illinois Supreme Court then reversed the Appellate Court’s ruling regarding the settling defendants. According to the Illinois Supreme Court the defendants who had already settled should not be named on the jury verdict form in order to attribute fault.

The Supreme Court later modified its opinion and ordered the Appellate Court to reconsider the case in order to determine whether the trial court had incorrectly denied the defendant the right to a sole proximate cause jury instruction. However, the Appellate Court disregarded the Supreme Court’s order to reconsider its consideration of the jury instruction and state that it was not necessary for the Appellate Court to make this ruling given that it had already determined that a new trial was necessary. The Appellate Court reaffirmed its ruling that the sole proximate cause jury instruction should be considered by the trial judge at the new trial, not the Appellate Court.

The case was then returned to the Illinois Supreme Court in order to determine whether the Appellate Court had erred when it disregarded the higher court’s mandate. More specifically the Supreme Court was asked to consider whether the defendant had waived its right to the sole proximate cause jury instruction by not raising its claim to it with the trial court. Citing Illinois Supreme Court Rule 239(b), plaintiff’s counsel contended that the defendant did not raise the issue of sole proximate cause in its brief and post-trial motions and that the proximate cause issue was instead an afterthought and as such should be waived.

In response, the defendant’s attorney stated that it had in fact raised the sole proximate cause issue from the beginning of the trial. To support his claim, the defense attorney cited plaintiff’s motion to bar evidence related to the settling defendants, which, if granted, would include any mention of the settling defendants on a sole proximate cause jury instruction. Plaintiff’s motion was filed at the very beginning of the jury trial, even before opening statements were made.

According to the defendant, if the trial court had elected to allow evidence regarding the actions of the settling defendants then the jury would have learned certain facts that might have placed the blame for the plaintiff’s death elsewhere. Specifically, the jury would have been told that there should have been a barricade around the area, which was not provided, and that the contractor should have required that a crane was used in order to lift the beam. These facts were kept from the jury because plaintiff successfully kept this information out with its motion to bar evidence regarding the settling defendants.

The Illinois Supreme Court will rule on this issue of sole proximate cause jury instructions, at which point this case will finally be returned to the trial court for a new jury trial. It has been over ten years since the plaintiff-decedent’s injury occurred in 1999, with the original jury trial taking place in 2003.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois wrongful death lawsuits for over 30 years, serving those areas in and around Cook County, including Arlington Heights, Rogers Park, Oak Forest, and Bolingbrook.

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