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Chicago v. Hertz Commercial Leasing

OPINION FILED APRIL 3, 1978.

THE CITY OF CHICAGO, APPELLEE,

v.

HERTZ COMMERCIAL LEASING CORP. ET AL., APPELLANTS.



Appeal from the Appellate Court for the First District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County, the Hon. Nathan J. Kaplan, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE MORAN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Rehearing denied May 26, 1978.

This case involves the interpretation of a parking ordinance of the city of Chicago (City) with respect to an owner's responsibility for vehicles illegally parked by a person other than the owner. In August of 1967, the City brought three actions, consolidated in the trial court, against Hertz Commercial Leasing Corporation, Avis Rent-A-Car System, Inc., and Chrysler Leasing Corporation (defendants). In count I of its amended complaint, the City sought to recover payment of fines from the defendants as the registered owners of vehicles allegedly parked in violation of municipal ordinances during 1966. The City prayed for judgments of $88,185 against Hertz, charging 5,879 violations; $73,425 against Avis, charging 4,895 violations; and $37,395 against Chrysler, charging 2,493 violations. Count II requested a declaratory judgment, conceding that the violating vehicles were probably in the possession of lessees of the defendants at the time of the violations. The City, nevertheless, sought to have the applicable parking ordinance interpreted to preclude the defendants from raising the defense that the owner was not in possession of the vehicle at the time of the violation.

The trial court dismissed count I, finding that it did not sufficiently inform the defendants of the details of the alleged violations. The appellate court reversed and remanded count I for trial. (38 Ill. App.3d 835.) This aspect of the decision is not before us.

On count II, the trial court entered a declaratory judgment finding that the applicable parking ordinance creates a presumption that the registered owner was in possession of the vehicle at the time of the parking violation, that the presumption may be rebutted by a showing that the vehicle was not in fact in the possession of the registered owner, and, ultimately, that the defendants were not responsible for violations while the vehicles were in the possession of their lessees. A majority decision of the appellate court reversed, holding that the parking ordinance imposes vicarious liability on the registered owner and that an owner is not absolved of responsibility if, at the time of the parking violation, he had "voluntarily transfer[red] possession [of the vehicle] for hire." (38 Ill. App.3d 835, 844.) We granted the defendants' petition for leave to appeal.

The adopted municipal ordinance in question provides:

"Whenever any vehicle shall have been parked in violation of any of the provisions of any ordinance prohibiting or restricting parking, the person in whose name such vehicle is registered shall be prima facie responsible for such violation and subject to the penalty therefor." (Emphasis added.) Chicago Municipal Code, ch. 27, sec. 364(a).

We emphasize at the outset that the ordinance cannot be read to treat owners who lease vehicles for hire any differently from owners who gratuitously lend their vehicles to friends or family members. The issue, though framed differently by the parties in response to the appellate court's opinion, is whether the ordinance purports to impose liability on the owner as the presumptive driver of the vehicle at the time of the parking violation, or whether it purports to impose vicarious liability on the owner, regardless of who actually parked the vehicle. If the former, then an owner — any owner, not merely an owner who leases vehicles for hire — may absolve himself of liability by showing that he was not the person who parked the vehicle alleged to have been in violation of a parking ordinance.

Parking ordinances similar to, and almost identical to, the above cited ordinance have been examined by courts> throughout the country over the past 50 years. The controversy almost invariably emerges as a concerted attempt by the courts> to discern the intention of the local authority in regulating parking. Some local authorities seek to impose liability ultimately on the driver and do so by summoning the registered owner to court, at which time the owner is presumed to have parked the vehicle. The owner may successfully rebut this presumption, in which case the local authorities are thrust into the dilemma of either securing personal jurisdiction over the driver, or dismissing the case. *fn1 Other local authorities seek to impose liability directly on the registered owner, in which case the owner is held vicariously responsible for the violation. In either case, the person subject to the penalty is strictly liable, in the legal sense that the owner or driver need not have intended to commit the offense to be responsible for the violation.

The defendants vigorously argue that the plain meaning of the words "prima facie responsible" in the Chicago ordinance indicates that it was the municipality's clear intention to allow the registered owner to rebut the presumption that the vehicle was parked by the owner. The issue cannot be so facilely resolved. The words "prima facie" mean nothing more than "at first sight" or "so far as can be judged from the first disclosure" or "presumably" or "without more." (Black's Law Dictionary 1353 (4th ed. 1957); Iowa City v. Nolan (Iowa 1976), 239 N.W.2d 102, 105.) In its statutory context, the words "prima facie" mean that the City has established its case against the registered owner by proving (1) the existence of an illegally parked vehicle, and (2) registration of that vehicle in the name of the defendant. Such proof constitutes a prima facie case against the defendant owner. There is no indication in the ordinance that the owner, to be presumed responsible for the violation, must be presumed to have been the person who parked the vehicle. In practice, the defendant, to absolve himself of responsibility, may show that the vehicle was not parked illegally or that he was not the registered owner of the vehicle at the time of the alleged violation. The defenses are limited, but the plain meaning of the ordinance admits of no more.

A predecessor of the ordinance in question provided:

"Whenever any vehicle shall have been parked in violation of any of the provisions of this chapter prohibiting or restricting parking, the person in whose name such vehicle is registered shall be subject to the penalty for such violation." (Chicago Municipal Code, ch. 27, sec. 34.1.)

This unambiguous language imposes both strict and vicarious liability on the owner whenever his vehicle is illegally parked, irrespective of whether the ...


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