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06/05/96 NORMA L. SNYDER AND TOMMY DEAN SNYDER v.

June 5, 1996

NORMA L. SNYDER AND TOMMY DEAN SNYDER, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,
v.
CURRAN TOWNSHIP, ILLINOIS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from Circuit Court of Sangamon County. No. 88L59. Honorable Richard J. Cadigan, Judge Presiding.

Petition for Rehearing Denied July 8, 1996. Released for Publication July 8, 1996. As Corrected August 29, 1996.

The Honorable Justice Steigmann delivered the opinion of the court: Honorable Robert J. Steigmann, J., Honorable John T. McCULLOUGH, J., Concurring, Honorable Rita B. Garman, J., Dissenting

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Steigmann

The Honorable Justice STEIGMANN delivered the opinion of the court:

Plaintiffs, Norma L. Snyder (Norma) and Tommy Dean Snyder, sued defendant, Curran Township, in an action for personal injuries. In March 1993, a jury returned a verdict in favor of Norma and awarded damages. Defendant appeals from the denial of its post-trial motions for a judgment n.o.v. or a new trial. We reverse and remand for a new trial.

I. BACKGROUND

In March 1987, Norma was driving east in the afternoon on Route 7 South, a narrow township road in rural Sangamon County. She failed to negotiate a sharp right bend in the road at the top of a hill, lost control of her van, and sustained severe injuries, including loss of her sight. On the left side of the roadway approximately 67 to 120 feet before the bend, defendant had erected a sign indicating a right "reverse turn." Plaintiffs alleged that this placement did not conform with the State manual advising placement of warning signs on the right side of the road and 425 feet in advance of a curve. Plaintiffs contended that the township had negligently placed the sign, which intended to warn motorists of the sharp hidden curve Norma failed to negotiate. The jury returned a verdict for Norma for $1,077,000, which the trial court reduced to $581,580 based on the jury's finding she was 46% contributorily negligent. The jury awarded plaintiff Dean Snyder nothing for his loss of consortium claim.

In its appeal to this court in 1994, defendant argued that (1) its decision regarding placement of the roadway warning sign was protected by discretionary immunity; (2) placement of the sign was not a proximate cause of Norma's injuries; and (3) the trial court erred by (a) admitting evidence of a prior accident; (b) refusing defendant's special interrogatory and jury instruction; and (c) submitting plaintiffs' instructions to the jury.

We concluded in that initial appeal that defendant's sign placement was protected by discretionary immunity and reversed the trial court's denial of defendant's motion for judgment n.o.v. Snyder v. Curran Township, 267 Ill. App. 3d 174, 175, 641 N.E.2d 3, 4, 204 Ill. Dec. 44 (1994).

In October 1995, the supreme court reversed this court, found discretionary immunity did not protect defendant, and returned the case to us for consideration of the other issues defendant raised on appeal. Snyder v. Curran Township, 167 Ill. 2d 466, 477, 657 N.E.2d 988, 994, 212 Ill. Dec. 643 (1995).

II. ANALYSIS

A. Form of Defendant's Special Interrogatory

Of the issues remaining for disposition, defendant first argues that the trial court committed reversible error by refusing to submit defendant's special interrogatory, which stated as follows: "On the date of the accident and at the time and place of the accident in question in this case, was the driving conduct of the plaintiff, Norma Snyder, the sole proximate cause of the accident?" We agree that the court erred by refusing to submit this special interrogatory to the jury.

Section 2-1108 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) provides as follows:

"Unless the nature of the case requires otherwise, the jury shall render a general verdict. The jury may be required by the court, and must be required on request of any party, to find specially upon any material question or questions of fact submitted to the jury in writing. Special interrogatories shall be tendered, objected to, ruled upon and submitted to the jury as in the case of instructions. Submitting or refusing to submit a question of fact to the jury may be reviewed on appeal, as a ruling on a question of law. When the special finding of fact is inconsistent with the general verdict, the former controls the latter and the court may enter judgment accordingly." 735 ILCS 5/2-1108 (West 1992).

It is well settled that a special interrogatory is in proper form if (1) it relates to an ultimate question of fact upon which the rights of the parties depend, and (2) an answer responsive to the interrogatory might be inconsistent with a general jury verdict. Worthy v. Norfolk & Western Ry. Co., 249 Ill. App. 3d 1096, 1103, 619 N.E.2d 1371, 1376, 189 Ill. Dec. 322 (1993); Noel v. Jones, 177 Ill. App. 3d 773, 783, 532 N.E.2d 1050, 1056, 127 Ill. Dec. 221 (1988). Further, the supreme court has held that a proper special interrogatory consists of a single, direct question ( Illinois Steel Co. v. Mann, 197 Ill. 186, 189, 64 N.E. 328, 330 (1902)), and is "one which, if found, must be controlling" of the general verdict ( Chicago City Ry. Co. v. Olis, 192 Ill. 514, 518, 61 N.E. 459, 460 (1901)). Additionally, a special interrogatory should not be repetitive, misleading, confusing, or ambiguous. Santos v. Chicago Transit Authority, 198 Ill. App. 3d 866, 870, 556 N.E.2d 607, 610, 144 Ill. Dec. 929 (1990).

Despite those well-settled principles, the specific requirements of a proper special interrogatory remain unclear. Many cases hold that a special interrogatory is ambiguous unless it uses the same terms as those set forth in the court's instructions to the jury. See, e.g., Lundquist v. Nickels, 238 Ill. App. 3d 410, 434, 605 N.E.2d 1373, 1389-90, 179 Ill. Dec. 150 (1992) (holding that an interrogatory was improper because it failed to refer specifically to plaintiff's "comparative" negligence). However, this court recently held in Kessinger v. Grefco, Inc., 273 Ill. App. 3d 275, 281, 652 N.E.2d 1203, 1208, 210 Ill. Dec. 227 (1995), that "while use of words in the interrogatories which were also used in other instructions might have been desirable, we consider the interrogatories [here, which did not,] very clear." See also Eaves v. Hyster Co., 244 Ill. App. 3d 260, 265-66, 614 N.E.2d 214, 218, 185 Ill. Dec. 80 (1993), in which the court concluded that the following interrogatory--which did not include the word "negligence"--was proper: "'Do you find that an absence of warnings and instructions *** was a proximate cause of plaintiff's injury?'".

In addition, some cases hold that a proper special interrogatory must contain all the elements necessary for a finding of guilt. See Noel, 177 Ill. App. 3d at 786, 532 N.E.2d at 1058 (holding that if one of the elements in a special interrogatory regarding defendant's negligence--namely, negligence, proximate cause, or injury--is omitted, it is insufficient to override the general verdict and is thus improper); see also Snow v. Farwick, 121 Ill. App. 2d 40, 46, 257 N.E.2d 155, 158 (1970). However, other cases have deemed interrogatories proper which focused on one element, provided it was dispositive of the claim. In Costa v. Dresser Industries, Inc., 268 Ill. App. 3d 1, 11, 642 N.E.2d 898, 905, 205 Ill. Dec. 33 (1994), the court held that the following interrogatory was proper: "'Do you find that Dominic Costa died from the disease of mesothelioma?'" In so holding, the court stated that

"the issue of whether the decedent died of mesothelioma was a question of ultimate fact. The plaintiff's entire case was premised on her claim that the decedent died of mesothelioma as a result of asbestos exposure. One of the main defenses raised to her claim was that he died of bronchogenic carcinoma unrelated to asbestos exposure. Thus, a jury finding that the decedent did not die of mesothelioma would be dispositive of the plaintiff's claim." Costa, 268 Ill. App. 3d at 11, 642 N.E.2d at 905.

In Chavez v. Watts, 161 Ill. App. 3d 664, 674, 515 N.E.2d 146, 153, 113 Ill. Dec. 337 (1987), the court upheld a special interrogatory which focused solely on whether defendant's car hit plaintiff and wrote the following:

"The question of whether or not defendant's car hit plaintiff was one of the ultimate issues in the case [where plaintiff alleged negligence and willful and wanton misconduct]. Plaintiff maintained throughout the trial that the car had hit her, whereas defendant consistently denied that it had."

Because section 2-1108 of the Code is ambiguous regarding the specific requirements of a proper special interrogatory, and because decisions interpreting that section do not clearly set forth specific requirements, this court may appropriately look to other sources to ascertain legislative intent. People v. Ross, 168 Ill. 2d 347, 352, 659 N.E.2d 1319, 1321, 213 Ill. Dec. 672 (1995). In Ross, the supreme court wrote that in such circumstances, "one *** source [to consider] is the committee comments to the statute, which, although not binding upon this court, are persuasive authority." Ross, 168 Ill. 2d at 352, 659 N.E.2d at 1321. The ...


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