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05/23/96 DENNIS M. HAMILTON v. CHRYSLER CORPORATION

May 23, 1996

DENNIS M. HAMILTON, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
CHRYSLER CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF COOK COUNTY. HONORABLE WILLARD J. LASSERS and JAMES J. HEYDA, JUDGES PRESIDING.

Presiding Justice Hoffman delivered the opinion of the court: Cahill and Theis, JJ., concur.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hoffman

PRESIDING JUSTICE HOFFMAN delivered the opinion of the court:

After a jury verdict of $175,000 was returned in favor of the plaintiff, Dennis M. Hamilton, and against the defendant, Chrysler Corporation (Chrysler), for a violation of the Illinois Motor Vehicle Franchise Act (MVFA) (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 121 1/2, par. 751, et seq., now 815 ILCS 710/1, et seq., (West 1994)), the circuit court entered judgment on the verdict and, thereafter, awarded the plaintiff an additional $125,000 for attorney fees. Chrysler appeals, contending that: 1) the plaintiff's action was not brought within the limitations period provided in the MVFA; 2) the plaintiff lacked standing to bring an action under the MVFA; 3) the court erred in the manner in which it instructed the jury; and 4) the trial court erred in awarding attorney fees to the plaintiff. For the reasons which follow, we reverse.

On August 22, 1984, the plaintiff filed a four-count complaint in the circuit court of Cook County naming Chrysler, Town & Country Dodge, Inc. (Town & Country), Donald E. Lavin, Jack Childs, and Robert E. Snyder as parties defendant (1984 action). Count I of that complaint alleged a number of violations of the MVFA on the part of Chrysler; count II was grounded in allegations of breach of fiduciary duty; count III purported to state a cause of action for defamation; and count IV sought money damages and injunctive relief by reason of plaintiff's termination as an employee of Town & Country. On November 25, 1987, the plaintiff voluntarily dismissed his 1984 action pursuant to the provisions of section 2-1009 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1987, ch. 110, par. 2-1009, now 735 ILCS 5/2-1009 (West 1994)).

On November 17, 1988, the plaintiff filed the instant action naming the same parties defendant as had been named in his 1984 action. The preamble of the plaintiff's three-count original complaint herein stated that he was bringing the action pursuant to section 13-217 of the Code (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1987, ch. 110, par. 13-217, now 735 ILCS 5/13-217 (West 1994)). Count I alleged violations of the MVFA; count II sought recovery for breach of fiduciary duty; and count III sought recovery for the plaintiff's wrongful termination as an employee of Town & Country. On April 27, 1989, Chrysler moved for judgment on the pleadings contending that the MVFA claims asserted by the plaintiff in the instant action were time barred by reason of the four-year limitations provision contained in section 14 of the MVFA (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1987, ch. 121 1/2, par. 764, now 815 ILCS 710/14 (West 1994)). Chrysler's motion was denied on September 19, 1989.

On January 7, 1994, Chrysler moved for summary judgment on all three counts of the plaintiff's complaint. On February 9, 1994, the trial court found that a material issue of fact existed on the question of whether the plaintiff was a "motor vehicle dealer" or a "franchisee" as those terms are defined in the MVFA (see 815 ILCS 710/2(h), (k) (West 1994)). The trial court denied Chrysler's motion as it related to count I of the plaintiff's complaint but granted Chrysler's motion as it related to counts II and III.

On June 6, 1994, the plaintiff filed a single-count amended complaint alleging violations of the MVFA, and it is upon this complaint that the case was tried. On July 6, 1994, prior to jury deliberations, the plaintiff dismissed the individual defendants from the action.

The plaintiff narrowed the issues of his claim by submitting jury instructions relating to Chrysler's violation of four sections of the MVFA, namely: 1) section 4(d)(6)(A) by terminating plaintiff's franchise without good cause; 2) section 4(d)(3) by adopting a system of allocating new cars and trucks which was arbitrary or capricious, or refusing to deliver vehicles in reasonable quantities and within a reasonable time after receipt of the plaintiff's orders; 3) section 4(c)(1) by coercing the plaintiff into accepting vehicles he did not order; and 4) section 4(b) by engaging in acts with respect to the franchise which were arbitrary, in bad faith or unconscionable. See 815 ILCS 710/4(b), (c), (d) (West 1994). The court instructed the jury in accordance with the plaintiff's tendered issues instructions, and also instructed the jury that in order to establish that Chrysler violated the MVFA, the plaintiff had the burden of proving that he, individually, was a "motor vehicle dealer" or "franchisee."

On July 6, 1994, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Chrysler on its alleged violations of sections 4(d)(6)(A), 4(d)(3), and 4(c)(1) of the MVFA and a verdict in favor of the plaintiff for Chrysler's violation of section 4(b). The jury fixed the plaintiff's damages at $175,000. On July 8, 1994, the court entered judgment on the verdict.

On August 2, 1994, the plaintiff filed a petition for an award of attorney fees and costs pursuant to section 13 of the MVFA (see 815 ILCS 710/13 (West 1994)). Thereafter, Chrysler filed its post-trial motion requesting the entry of a judgment notwithstanding the verdict in favor of the plaintiff or, in the alternative, a new trial, and its memorandum in opposition to the plaintiff's petition for fees and costs.

On October 6, 1994, the trial court denied Chrysler's post-trial motion and awarded the plaintiff $125,000 in attorney fees. This appeal followed.

When, as in this case, the limitations period for a statutory cause of action is contained within the same act that creates the cause of action, a plaintiff's compliance with the limitations period is a condition precedent to bringing suit and operates as a limitation on the defendant's liability and not merely the plaintiff's remedy. Demchuk v. Duplancich, 92 Ill. 2d 1, 440 N.E.2d 112, 64 Ill. Dec. 560 (1982); Lowrey v. Malkowski, 20 Ill. 2d 280, 170 N.E.2d 147 (1960); Halper v. Vayo, 210 Ill. App. 3d 81, 568 N.E.2d 914, 154 Ill. Dec. 693 (1991). In such a case, the plaintiff bears the burden of pleading and proving compliance with the limitations period as an element of his cause of action. Demchuk, 92 Ill. 2d at 6-7, 440 N.E.2d 112; Lowrey, 20 Ill. 2d at 285, 170 N.E.2d 147.

As stated, the plaintiff filed the instant action on November 17, 1988. A simple reading of the plaintiff's complaints in this case reveals that all of Chrysler's actions which allegedly violated the MVFA occurred on or before August 14, 1984. Consequently, in order to escape the bar interposed by the four-year limitations period for actions brought pursuant to the MVFA as contained in section 14 of that act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1987, ch. 121 1/2, par 764), this action must qualify as a ...


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