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Ziencina v. County of Cook

September 30, 1999


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Miller

Agenda 7-March 1999.

Following a jury trial in the circuit court of Cook County, the plaintiff, Paul R. Ziencina, was awarded $600,000 in damages in this personal injury action against the defendant, Cook County, for its negligence in clearing snow at a highway intersection. The appellate court affirmed that judgment in an unpublished order. No. 1-96-1212 (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23). We allowed the defendant's petition for leave to appeal (177 Ill. 2d R. 315(a)), and we now affirm the judgment of the appellate court.

The accident at issue occurred early in the morning on January 31, 1991. At that time, the plaintiff was driving north on Ridgeland Avenue near the city of Matteson when he stopped at the intersection of Ridgeland and Vollmer Road. The plaintiff intended to turn left onto Vollmer, an east-west route. A mound of snow on the southwest corner of the intersection blocked the plaintiff's view to the west, however, and the plaintiff's car was struck by a vehicle coming from the west on Vollmer as the plaintiff edged out into the intersection to get a better view of traffic. Both roads were two-lane highways with speed limits of 45 miles per hour; traffic on Ridgeland, but not on Vollmer, was required to stop at the intersection.

The plaintiff commenced the present action on July 9, 1991, by filing suit against Cook County, which maintained the intersection, and Terry Miller, the driver of the other vehicle. The plaintiff later settled with Miller, and that portion of the action is not involved in this appeal. The plaintiff's claim against the county alleged that the county was negligent in plowing snow into a large pile, which blocked the view of northbound traffic on Vollmer, and in failing to remove the snow after placing it there.

At trial, the plaintiff testified that on the morning of the accident, January 31, 1991, he left home around 6:15 or 6:20 to go to work; he was driving a 1981 Toyota Corolla. The plaintiff drove north on Ridgeland toward Vollmer Road, stopped at the stop sign, and noticed a huge pile of snow on the southwest corner. The plaintiff intended to make a left turn. He looked right and left, but he could not see anything to the left because of the snow bank. The plaintiff edged forward to get a better view of eastbound traffic on Vollmer. He was at the edge of Vollmer but he still could not see, so he moved out a little more. He next remembered being hit by another vehicle. On cross-examination, the plaintiff testified that he went to work the day before the accident and drove through the intersection without incident.

Terry Miller, the driver of the vehicle that struck the plaintiff's car, testified by way of a videotaped evidence deposition. Miller stated that on January 31, 1991, he was driving to work around 6 a.m., traveling eastbound on Vollmer Road in a Chevrolet Blazer. That morning, Miller noticed a pile of snow at the southwest corner of the intersection of Vollmer and Ridgeland. The highest point of the mound was at the edge of the intersection, and the pile extended 30 to 40 feet south on Ridgeland. According to Miller, the snow stood higher than the roof of a car, and it appeared to have been created by plowing rather than by drifting.

Miller testified that he slowed down as he approached the intersection, so that he was going 30 to 40 miles per hour immediately before the collision. Miller said that he was 40 to 60 feet from the intersection when he noticed the front end of the plaintiff's car. The plaintiff then pulled forward slowly, and Miller hit the side of the plaintiff's car a second or two later.

Robert Thelen, a neighbor of the plaintiff, followed the plaintiff to the intersection of Vollmer and Ridgeland on the morning of the accident. At trial, Thelen testified that there was snow piled on the southwest corner of the intersection that day, and he estimated that the pile stood about the height of two cars, or eight to nine feet. Thelen thought that the snow had been plowed there and was not the result of drifting. Thelen saw the plaintiff stop at the stop line on the pavement before the intersection. The plaintiff then moved forward slowly and stopped, and he repeated that pattern several times before he finally entered the intersection. The plaintiff was then hit by a vehicle traveling eastbound on Vollmer Road. Thelen, who was driving a pickup truck that morning, testified that the mound of snow prevented him from seeing eastbound traffic on Vollmer.

Voies Phillips, also a neighbor of the plaintiff, arrived at the intersection shortly after the plaintiff's accident. Phillips testified that he saw a huge pile of snow at the southwest corner of the intersection of Vollmer and Ridgeland. Phillips said that the snow stood five feet high and extended south of Vollmer for about 20 to 25 feet. Phillips believed that the snow had been plowed there and was not the result of drifting; he could see marks in the snow where the blade of the plow had cut into the pile, and on the roadway were trails of snow like those left by a plow. Phillips testified that when he tried to make a right turn at the intersection, he could not see the traffic approaching from the west on Vollmer because the snow blocked his view; he estimated that the pile stood about two or three feet higher than the roof of his car, a Chevrolet Caprice. Phillips later spoke with the plaintiff about the accident, and the plaintiff explained that he did not see the car that hit him because of the snow pile.

Detective Norman Bernsen of the Matteson police department was notified of the accident and arrived on the scene a little after 6:30 that morning. Detective Bernsen testified that he noticed a mound of snow at the southwest corner of the intersection of Vollmer and Ridgeland, and he stated that the snow appeared to have been plowed there. According to the detective, the snow pile on the corner would have impaired the view of a driver traveling north on Ridgeland and looking to the west.

The parties also presented evidence concerning the defendant's snow plow operations. According to this testimony, county snow plow operators were instructed not to leave snow at intersections in such a manner that it could create a hazard by blocking a driver's view. Snow plow operators were also instructed to report problems, including blocked sight lines, and one snow plow driver stated that he would reduce the height of a pile of snow that stood five feet high. There was also testimony that drifting had been reported on Ridgeland Avenue south of Vollmer on January 31, 1991. A witness explained that there is a low spot on Ridgeland, about one-fourth to one-half mile south of Vollmer, where drifting can occur. The witness also stated that farm fields lie to the south and west of the intersection and that, with certain winds, snow can blow across the intersection. County employees who drove through the intersection on January 30 and 31 could not recall the condition of the southwest corner.

Wayne Peterson, a meteorologist employed by a private weather forecasting service, described weather conditions for the period preceding the plaintiff's accident. For this purpose, Peterson used data collected in Park Forest, which was the closest reporting station. According to this information, a trace amount of snow fell during the 24-hour period ending at 8 a.m. on January 30, and no snow fell during the same period ending January 31. There were three inches of snow already on the ground during those days.

Andrew Ramish testified as the plaintiff's expert witness. Ramish, a civil engineer, was president of the Institute for Safety Analysis and acted as that entity's director of highway engineering. Ramish examined the police reports, photographs, and depositions compiled in this case. He believed that county snow plow operators violated normal safety standards by placing snow in a way that could obstruct drivers' sight lines at the intersection, which created an unnaturally dangerous condition. In Ramish's opinion, the snow plow drivers should have pushed the snow back further, and they violated customary safety standards by failing to do so.

The plaintiff also introduced evidence about his injuries and medical expenses. Immediately after the accident, the plaintiff was taken to a hospital in Olympia Fields. Nine days later, he was transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital. After a month at Northwestern, he was transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute, where he stayed for three to four weeks to undergo a course of physical therapy. The plaintiff, who was employed as a mechanic for a trucking company, returned to work in June 1991 on a trial basis, and he resumed full-time employment in August of that year. The plaintiff testified that he cannot perform as many tasks at work now as he could before the accident, and he said that movement ...

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