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Stevenson v. Maston

MARCH 6, 1969.




Appeal from the Circuit Court of Rock Island County, Fourteenth Judicial Circuit; the Hon. DAN H. McNEAL, Judge, presiding. Judgments affirmed.


Plaintiffs-Appellants, Allen Stevenson a minor, by his father as next friend and his father individually, brought this action in the Circuit Court of Rock Island County seeking damages for personal injury against Shane Maston, Defendant-Appellee. The court directed verdicts in favor of defendant on the first two counts of the complaint based on malicious and wanton conduct. The third and fourth counts of the complaint based on negligence were submitted to the jury and resulted in verdicts of not guilty. Judgments were entered on the verdicts, post-trial motions of plaintiffs were denied, and the plaintiffs have appealed from such judgments.

On February 17, 1966, after school hours, Plaintiff, Allen Stevenson, Defendant Shane Maston and two companions went to the home of Shane Maston. Each of the four boys was eleven years of age and they were classmates in the sixth grade at the school which they attended. One of the purposes in going to Shane's house was to look at his chemistry set. After the boys arrived at Shane's house they went to the basement where the chemistry set was located. Shane's parents were not at home. While the other boys were looking at the chemistry set, Shane went to another room in the basement to get a can of denatured alcohol. He had purchased the alcohol at a local drugstore the previous week for use with his chemistry set. Shane poured a quantity of the alcohol into an empty plastic bleach container. He then returned to the room where the other boys were looking at the chemistry set and placed the container containing the alcohol on the floor. He then tried, unsuccessfully, to ignite the alcohol in the container by throwing matches into the container. As he was doing so the other two boys became alarmed, left the room and watched from the stairs. Allen, however, walked over to the area where Shane and the container were located and was standing about one and a half feet from the container. The initial attempts to ignite the alcohol being unsuccessful, Shane ignited the balance of the book of matches and threw the book into the container at which time the alcohol did catch fire and flamed up about a foot above the container. As the flames were subsiding Shane drew back his foot, at the same time saying "here catch," and his foot struck the container of still flaming alcohol causing it to slide across the floor where it bumped Allen's foot, overturned and ignited Allen's pants. The boys ran upstairs where Shane extinguished the burning clothing by smothering it with a rug.

It appears that the group of boys had on many occasions played a game similar to one known as "flinch." This game involves conduct of surprise or threatening gesture designed to cause the other person to flinch in anticipation of something which does not happen. Shane testified that he did not intend to strike the container with his foot, that he intended only a gesture to induce Allen to flinch and that his foot struck the container accidently. Both Allen and Shane were familiar with the characteristics of denatured alcohol having used it in the performance of chemistry experiments.

As a result of the burns sustained by Allen, hospitalization and surgery were required, the special damages incident thereto being $1,800.

Plaintiffs assign as error first, the trial court improperly denied them leave to amend their complaint in order that it conform to the proof, second, that the trial court improperly directed verdicts on the counts based on malicious and wanton conduct and third, the court improperly denied their motion for a directed verdict on the issue of liability as well as their motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial.

At the close of plaintiffs' case, an initial conference on instructions was held. During this conference the trial judge observed that one of plaintiffs' proposed instructions was based on willful and wanton conduct while the complaint alleged malicious and wanton conduct. Thereupon the plaintiffs orally moved to amend the complaint by substituting "willful" for "malicious" as alleged in the first two counts. The motion was denied and plaintiffs now claim such ruling was reversible error since the motion was made to conform the pleadings to the proof.

[1-3] Chapter 110, section 46, Ill Rev Stats 1967, provides in substance that pleadings may be amended at anytime prior to final judgment. Granting or denying leave to amend is a matter within the discretion of the trial judge, and except where there is a clear or manifest abuse of that discretion, the decision of the trial judge will not be disturbed on appeal. Davidson v. Oliva, 18 Ill. App.2d 149, 151 N.E.2d 345. The liberal policy of permitting amendments to pleadings is in accord with the salutory principle that controversies ought to be settled on their merits in accord with the substantive rights of the parties. Before a trial judge can be deemed to have abused his discretion, the record must disclose that reasons or facts were presented to the trial judge as a basis for requesting the favorable exercise of the trial judge's discretion. The materiality of the proposed amendments must either be apparent from the proceedings or made apparent to the trial judge by the party seeking the relief. McCartney v. McCartney, 8 Ill.2d 494, 134 N.E.2d 789 and McLaughlin v. Pickerel, 381 Ill. 574, 46 N.E.2d 368. Thus a trial judge cannot be said to have acted arbitrarily or abused his discretion with respect to matters not presented to him.

Plaintiffs amended their pleadings twice, the last amendments being about one week before trial. At the time they moved for permission to make the amendments, the ruling on which is now assigned as error, no claim was made that they were surprised or that some adverse ruling of the trial court affected any theory upon which they were basing their case. Nor did they suggest to the trial court that their evidence tended to support some theory other than that alleged in their complaint.

In this court, plaintiffs argue that "willful" requires a lesser degree of culpability than "malicious" and that therefore if permission had been granted to make the amendments the likelihood of the first two counts of their complaint being submitted to the jury would have been increased. We believe it is sufficient to say that this argument was not made to the trial court and the record fails to demonstrate that plaintiffs' theory of the case was based on any such distinction or that they were deprived of the opportunity to present any theory tending to support their cause of action.

At the conference during which plaintiffs moved to amend their complaint, defendant moved for a directed verdict in his favor. The latter motion was taken under advisement by the trial court and when subsequently renewed, after presentation of defendant's evidence, the motion for directed verdicts on the first two counts was granted. It is significant to note that when the trial court made its final determination on defendant's motion for directed verdicts, plaintiffs made no suggestion that the evidence tended to support any other theory of recovery than that alleged in the complaint. We find no merit in the contention that the trial court abused its discretion by precluding plaintiffs from presenting any theory of liability supported by the evidence.

Plaintiffs next argue the trial court erred in directing a verdict in favor of the defendant on the first two counts of the complaint based on a "malicious and wanton assault." Both parties agree that the Pedrick rule (Pedrick v. Peoria & Eastern R. Co., 37 Ill.2d 494, 229 N.E.2d 504) is applicable to the motion for directed verdict and requires a consideration of all the evidence including the reasonable inferences to be drawn therefrom in favor of plaintiffs.

It would also appear that the parties agree that "malicious conduct" requires an evil intent (In re Smyser, 182 Ill. App. 208) and that "wanton conduct" means an act consciously done with knowledge that injury will naturally result (Anderson v. Brown, 340 Ill. App. 613, 97 N.E.2d 495). The disagreement arises as to the application of the foregoing principles to the facts in the instant case.

Plaintiffs insist that the evidence warrants the reasonable inference that defendant's conduct was deliberate. They rely both on the act itself, i.e., striking the container containing flaming alcohol by defendant's ...

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