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Thomas v. Northington





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. James A. Geroulis, Judge, presiding.


This appeal arises from a collision of defendant's semitrailer truck and the rear end of a car owned and operated by plaintiff Lindberg Thomas, in which Elizabeth King and Alvin Schruggsbey were passengers. After a trial by jury, a verdict was returned in favor of defendant and against all plaintiffs. On appeal, plaintiffs contend that the trial court erred in denying their post-trial motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or alternatively, for a new trial. We affirm.

Relevant to our disposition are the following. Plaintiffs were injured when the automobile driven by plaintiff Lindberg Thomas was struck in the rear by a semitrailer truck driven by defendant as both vehicles were travelling on a downhill ramp leading to Interstate 57. Lindberg testified that on September 19, 1979, at 12:30 a.m., he had driven his 1970 Pontiac southbound on Halsted Street for approximately three to four miles before turning onto an entrance ramp to the I-57 expressway; that he first saw defendant's truck behind him as the two vehicles crossed over I-57 just before they both turned onto the 300-350-foot, 1 1/2-lane-wide ramp; and that he was travelling down the ramp at a speed of 25 miles per hour. Traffic conditions were medium, and the weather was clear and dry. When a car which was about 20 feet in front of him slowed down, Thomas broke his speed and also "slowed down." Defendant's truck, 10 to 15 feet behind him, hit him "pretty hard" from behind, smashing the rear end of his car up to the rear passenger seat, and scattering glass on Mrs. King, the rear-seat passenger. Thomas neither heard a horn nor the screeching of tires. He further testified that his car was in "A-1" shape on September 19, 1979, and that his headlights were working properly. There was $600 damage to his car. Neither of his passengers, Mr. Schruggsbey nor Mrs. King, was able to testify to any details surrounding the collision.

Dr. Mitchell, a chiropractor, was called to testify on behalf of plaintiffs. He testified that all three plaintiffs were treated by his office after the accident, lost time from work, and have bills from him which remain unpaid.

Defendant, testifying on his own behalf, stated that he initially saw the "old" car in which plaintiffs were riding three to four miles north of the entrance ramp, where he noticed that the car, which had no taillights or turn signal, was slowing down, speeding up and slowing down again. He testified that there were only two cars on I-57 just before the accident; that plaintiffs' car, which was five or six feet ahead of him, was proceeding down the ramp at a speed in excess of 20 miles per hour; and that his own speed on the ramp was 15 to 20 miles per hour. Defendant testified that plaintiffs' car made a sudden stop on the entrance ramp, causing an impact of the two vehicles. On cross-examination, defendant stated that his truck was new at the time of the accident; that he at no time attempted to get around or away from plaintiffs' car as he followed it down Halsted; and that there was no possible way that both a truck and car could go down the ramp together (side-by-side). Further, defendant stated that he did see plaintiffs' car come to a complete stop once while he was following it down Halsted Street, and that he did not see any taillight go on at this time; he heard no screeching of tires at the time of the collision.

Finally, Chicago police officer William Storck, testifying for defendant, stated that he was driving to work on I-57 when he witnessed the accident, and that there were only two cars on the expressway at the time, his and another. He saw plaintiffs' car going down the ramp "very slow"; defendant's truck was following 100 feet behind, and at the same speed. There were no stray animals, holes in the street or any other vehicles in front of plaintiffs' car. Storck was watching the two vehicles on the ramp, because it looked as if defendant would swing his truck into traffic because plaintiffs' car was moving so slowly, and if it did, it would be in Storck's lane. When the truck got to the bottom of the ramp where the curb ended and the ramp accessed the expressway, defendant put his turn signal on. As defendant "looked over" into his side-view mirror, plaintiff "slammed on his brakes." There was no other vehicle in front of plaintiffs when this happened. He further stated that the truck was originally four car lengths behind the car, but that this distance was decreased to two car lengths when the car slammed on its brakes. Following the impact, Storck kept going because he was late for 12:30 a.m. roll call. However, in his rear-view mirror, he saw the truck hit the car, the car lurch forward and both vehicles pull over. Upon his arrival at work, Storck reported the collision; he returned to the scene 15 minutes later.

Closing arguments and jury instructions followed, neither of which is in issue here. The jury rendered its verdict for defendant and against all plaintiffs; the trial court entered judgment on this verdict. In their post-trial motion, plaintiffs moved for judgment n.o.v., or alternatively, for a new trial. Plaintiffs appeal from the trial court's denial of their post-trial motions.


• 1 The initial question raised in this appeal is whether the trial court erred in failing to grant plaintiffs' post-trial motion for judgment n.o.v. Plaintiffs assert that because defendant's semitrailer truck rear-ended the car in which they were riding, defendant is negligent as a matter of law, and therefore the lower court should have granted their motion for judgment n.o.v. We disagree.

The standard applied in determining whether or not to grant a directed verdict or a judgment n.o.v. was set forth in Pedrick v. Peoria & Eastern R.R. Co. (1967), 37 Ill.2d 494, 229 N.E.2d 504:

"In our judgment verdicts ought to be directed and judgments n.o.v. entered only in those cases in which all of the evidence, when viewed in its aspect most favorable to the opponent, so overwhelmingly favors movant that no contrary verdict based on that evidence could ever stand." 37 Ill.2d 494, 510.

In the present case, plaintiffs maintain that in rear-end collision cases, there is a generally accepted line of precedent for holding the driver of the rear vehicle negligent as a matter of law. In support of their position, they cite Burroughs v. McGinness (1978), 63 Ill. App.3d 664, 380 N.E.2d 37, where the court stated:

"In light of general experience and common knowledge, the evidence before us reveals that the defendant was not attentive while driving and therefore, negligent. A driver approaching from the rear has the duty to keep a safe lookout and he must take into consideration the fact that he may be required to stop or slow his vehicle suddenly. [Citations.] Furthermore if he does not maintain a proper lookout for traffic ahead he is negligent. [Citation.]" 63 Ill. App.3d 664, 667.

Plaintiffs posit that implicit in this duty to keep a safe lookout is a duty to maintain a sufficient distance behind the preceding vehicle in order to stop or slow suddenly if necessary. (See Hickox v. Erwin (1981), 101 Ill. App.3d 585, 588, 428 N.E.2d 520.) They point to the court's opinion in Burroughs to suggest that the conduct of the defendant violated these principles and constituted negligence. See also Zaeh v. ...

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