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Morrison v. Reckamp

February 19, 1998



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Wolfson

The morning of January 9, 1990, was gray, overcast, and rainy as Richard Morrison drove a tractor-trailer owned by the Safety-Kleen Corporation west along Route 20 in Elgin. Morrison's partner, Billy Joe Payne, was riding in the passenger seat of the tractor cab. As the tractor-trailer neared the intersection at Shales Parkway, it left the roadway, traveled along the shoulder, then flipped on its side, snapping a telephone pole in two, breaking some electrical wires, and coming to rest against a telephone pole.

Morrison was unconscious at the scene of the accident and was taken to the hospital. When he regained consciousness in the hospital he had no recollection of the accident. He could not say how the accident occurred or what had caused the tractor-trailer to leave the roadway.

Billy Joe Payne was unable to provide the missing pieces to the puzzle of what went wrong. Payne said he had been looking out the passenger window when he felt the right front tire travel onto the shoulder. He looked over at Morrison and saw that he was awake. However, the tractor-trailer, Payne said, continued along the shoulder for about 150 to 200 feet, then hit "sort of a ditch." The trailer rolled onto its side, hit a telephone pole, and broke the pole in two. The tractor-trailer then came to rest against a second telephone pole.

Though Payne thought the tractor-trailer left the pavement "suddenly," he could not say what caused Morrison to veer off the road. Morrison did not sound his horn or say anything before the accident. Payne did not see a car pull into their lane in front of them.

Marilyn Binda also was driving along Route 20 on the morning of January 9, 1990. She was familiar with Route 20, which has two lanes going east and two lanes going west, because she traveled it every day on the way to work. Binda was in the left lane going west. She saw a Safety-Kleen tractor-trailer, also going west, in the right-hand lane about 30 feet ahead of her. There were three cars in the left lane ahead of her.

Binda said she saw a white Nissan, which was traveling two cars ahead of her in the left lane, move sharply into the right lane in front of the tractor-trailer, without signaling. Soon after, the tractor-trailer began to "ease over" to the right and its right tires moved onto the shoulder. After continuing along the shoulder for a distance, the tractor-trailer seemed to "lunge forward." It then fish-tailed, left the road, and flew into the air. It finally came to rest with a deafening thud.

Binda believed that the white Nissan had caused a chain reaction which resulted in the accident. She followed the Nissan and wrote down its license plate number. Later, she called the Elgin police department and reported what she had seen, including the license number of the white Nissan.

Binda wasn't the only witness to the accident, however. Donna K. Britton was traveling eastbound on Route 20 when she saw a tractor-trailer traveling in the westbound lane leave the road. Britton said it was raining heavily at the time of the accident. She didn't see any cars in front of the tractor-trailer, nor did she see a car move into the right lane in front of the tractor-trailer. The tractor-trailer seemed to just "roll off" the roadway onto the shoulder "in slow motion." For no apparent reason, she said, the tractor-trailer began to veer off the road, then "bounced," and flipped over.

Scott Boyd Norris also was traveling eastbound on Route 20 at the time the accident occurred. He first noticed the tractor-trailer when he was 3,000 to 4,000 yards away. Though traffic was fairly heavy in both directions, he never saw a car cut in front of the tractor-trailer. However, he did see a car that was traveling eastbound in front of him make a quick left-hand turn from Route 20 into the Consolidated Freightways yard. This car would have crossed in front of the tractor-trailer. Shortly after, the tractor-trailer left the road "really quickly" and went into a ditch. He believed the car that made the left-hand turn in front of the tractor caused a chain reaction which resulted in the tractor-trailer leaving the road.

Two Elgin police officers, Deputy Chief James J. Burns and Officer Thomas Shergold, went to the scene of the accident to investigate. Officer Shergold was primarily responsible for traffic control. However, his partner, Deputy Chief Burns, the senior officer in charge of the investigation, was a certified accident reconstruction specialist. It was Burns' responsibility to determine the cause of the accident.

Burns took photographs, made measurements, and collected other physical evidence. Based on his observations at the scene, he concluded that the tractor-trailer had been traveling in a straight line when, for unknown reasons, it left the roadway in a gradual or smooth motion, traveled along the shoulder for approximately 100 feet, then went into a ditch. Because the tire imprints indicated that the tires were "rolling" when they were on the shoulder and there was no evidence of skidding or "yaws" (sideways sliding), it was his opinion the tractor-trailer had not been braking when it left the road, nor did it appear that the tractor was involved in an evasive maneuver when it left the roadway.

Based on the license plate information received from Marilyn Binda, Officer Shergold identified Michael Reckamp as the owner of the white Nissan. Shergold and Deputy Chief Burns interviewed Reckamp at his place of employment the day of the accident. Reckamp, Shergold said, was completely unaware that an accident occurred on Route 20 involving a Safety-Kleen tractor-trailer. Reckamp admitted he had been driving along Route 20 that morning, but he didn't remember seeing the tractor-trailer. Reckamp said after he passed the Consolidated Freightways yard and was proceeding over the second of two bridges that were located west of the freight yard on Route 20, he heard a "boom" and saw a flash of light. Reckamp attributed this to the weather and proceeded on his way. Reckamp denied pulling into the right-hand lane in front of the tractor-trailer.

The police filed no charges against Reckamp.

On December 31, 1991, Morrison and Payne filed a personal injury suit against Reckamp, claiming Reckamp's negligence caused their tractor-trailer to leave the roadway and resulted in their bodily injury. Two-and-a-half years later, the Safety-Kleen Corporation filed a complaint against Reckamp, seeking to recover for property damage to the tractor-trailer. The two actions were consolidated.

A jury trial on the consolidated complaints began on September 18, 1996. On September 24, 1996, the jury returned a verdict in Reckamp's favor and the court entered Judgement on the verdict. The ...

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