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Imig v. Beck

OPINION FILED DECEMBER 19, 1986.

JOHN E. IMIG ET AL., APPELLEES,

v.

HARLEY W. BECK, JR., ET AL., APPELLANTS.



Appeal from the Appellate Court for the Fourth District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of McLean County, the Hon. John T. McCullough, Judge, presiding.

JUSTICE RYAN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

The plaintiffs, Margaret E. Imig and her husband, John E. Imig, filed a 12-count complaint in the circuit court of Logan County seeking damages from the defendants, Raymond E. Burger and Harley W. Beck, Jr., for injuries they sustained when their van collided with an automobile being towed by a wrecker owned by Burger and operated by Beck. The case was tried before a jury. At the close of all of the evidence, the court allowed the plaintiffs to amend the complaint and allege causes of action based on the theory of res ipsa loquitur. The jury returned a general verdict in favor of both defendants and against both plaintiffs. The appellate court, with one justice dissenting, reversed (137 Ill. App.3d 631) and remanded for a new trial on the issue of damages. We granted the defendants' petitions for leave to appeal (103 Ill.2d R. 315(a)) and consolidated the causes for review.

The collision in question occurred about 10:15 p.m. on January 22, 1981, 1 1/2 miles west of the junction of U.S. Route 136 and Illinois Route 121. Route 121 runs north-south, while Route 136 runs east and west. The weather at the time was clear and the pavement dry. The only witnesses to the collision were the defendant, Harley Beck, Jr., his son, Harley Beck III, the Imigs, and their son, Robert.

On the day in question, the Imigs drove their van from their home in Mason City, Illinois, to McLean, Illinois, to visit their son, Robert. Around 10 p.m., they decided to return home. John Imig was driving, and his wife was a passenger in the front seat. Traveling west on U.S. Route 136, the Imigs saw a wrecker with flashing lights approaching them. After stopping at the intersection of Routes 136 and 121, they proceeded west in the northern lane of Route 136 at 50 to 55 miles per hour. As the wrecker passed their van, Mrs. Imig looked over, noticed two people in the wrecker, looked back, and saw a streak of blue. The vehicle being towed by the wrecker apparently collided head-on with the Imigs' van, resulting in injuries to the Imigs and serious damage to their van.

The Imigs' testimony was corroborated by their son, Robert. According to his trial testimony, Robert was following his parents home in his own van. As the wrecker proceeded to pass his parents' van, an explosion occurred. Robert admitted, however, that he did not actually observe the towed automobile swerve into the path of the oncoming van. He also admitted that both the wrecker and his parents' van appeared to be in their proper lanes of traffic at the moment of impact.

Officer Dale Marlo, an Illinois State Trooper who investigated the accident, testified that, based on the location of the debris, he thought the collision occurred in the westbound lane of Route 136. Marlo further testified that the stabilizer bar, which served to keep the towed vehicle tracking properly behind the wrecker, appeared to be missing either a bolt or a pin.

Also called as a witness for the Imigs was Gary Specketer, who was hired to investigate the accident the following day. He testified that he found a 10-inch "hitch" pin on the shoulder of the southern lane of Route 136, 100 feet east of the accident.

Harley Beck III testified that he was a passenger in the wrecker driven by his father. According to his testimony, the Becks were towing a car from Pekin, Illinois, to Atlanta, Illinois. He testified that the car had been properly attached to the wrecker, including the use of safety chains. He further testified that they stopped one mile before the accident to check the towing mechanism and, in their opinion, everything appeared to be working correctly. He stated that he did not sense any irregularity in the manner in which the car was tracking before the collision. He also stated that the wrecker was in its proper lane of travel at the time of the accident.

Harley Beck, Jr., the driver of the wrecker, who was called as an adverse witness under section 2-1102 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 110, par. 2-1102), testified that he had towed cars with defendant Burger's wrecker on numerous occasions. He stated that he repeatedly checked the car in the wrecker's rearview mirror, but noticed nothing unusual. He was unable to explain, though, what caused the towed automobile to cross over into the westbound lane and collide with the Imigs' van. He admitted, however, that if the car being towed by the wrecker had been properly connected, then it should not have crossed over into the westbound lane of traffic.

Raymond Burger, the owner of the wrecker, who was also called as an adverse witness under section 2-1102 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 110, par. 2-1102), testified at trial that the wrecker was properly equipped, and in good operating condition without defects, at the time of the accident. He further testified that the wrecker had passed various safety inspections. He also noted that the wrecker was used since the accident. He acknowledged that the safety chains were sheared by the impact of the accident. He also indicated that the missing pin or bolt in question was not necessary, since the stabilizer bar was properly welded.

As noted, the jury returned a verdict in favor of both defendants and against both plaintiffs, and the court denied the plaintiffs' motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial on the issue of damages only. In reversing the circuit court, the appellate court majority concluded that the collision between the Imigs' van and the towed vehicle was one that would not normally occur in the absence of negligence, since both the wrecker and the Imig van had remained in their proper lanes of travel; that the wrecker and the towed car were under the exclusive control and management of the defendants at the time of the accident; and that there was no evidence that the Imigs in any way contributed to the cause of the accident. (137 Ill. App.3d 631, 634.) Citing Pedrick v. Peoria & Eastern R.R. Co. (1967), 37 Ill.2d 494, the appellate majority reasoned that a plaintiff should be entitled to a directed verdict or a judgment notwithstanding the verdict on a theory of res ipsa loquitur when the circumstances are such that the inference of negligence is so strong that all of the evidence, viewed in its aspect most favorable to the opponent, so overwhelmingly favors the movant that no contrary jury verdict based on that evidence could ever stand. (137 Ill. App.3d 631, 636.) Relying primarily on the fact that the evidence offered by the defendants to negate the inference of negligence failed to directly address what caused the towed car to swerve into the westbound lane and collide with the Imigs' van, the appellate majority held that the jury's verdict was not supported by the evidence.

The defendants argue in this court that their failure to identify the cause of the accident is not an admission of negligence. The defendants maintain that res ipsa loquitur does not change the burden of persuasion, which remains upon the plaintiffs, and that the jury is free to accept or, as here, to reject the inference of negligence. In essence, the defendants argue that experience teaches that some things in life cannot be understood, that the accident involved in this case is one of them, and that the jury properly determined that the blame could not fairly be placed on the defendants.

The Latin phrase, res ipsa loquitur, which means nothing more than "the thing speaks for itself," is the offspring of a casual statement by Baron Pollack in the course of colloquy with counsel in Byrne v. Boadle (Ex. 1863), 2 H. & C. 722, 159 Eng. Rep. 299, a case in which a barrel of flour rolled out of the defendant's warehouse window and fell on a passing pedestrian. (See 3 J. Dooley, Modern Tort Law sec. 48.01 (1977); W. Prosser & W. Keeton, Torts sec. 39, at 243 (5th ed. 1984).) In its inception, the principle of res ipsa loquitur was nothing more than a rule of evidence, permitting the jury to draw from the occurrence of an unusual event the conclusion that it was probably the defendant's fault. Shortly after its origin, however, it became confused, in cases of injuries to passengers at the hands of carriers, with the aftermath of an older decision which had held that the carrier had the burden of proving that its negligence had not caused the injury. This intermingling of circumstantial evidence and burden of proof resulted in a great deal of ...


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