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Vrzal v. Contract Transportation Systems Co.

March 31, 2000

KATRINA VRZAL, A MINOR, BY HER NEXT FRIEND, NANCY SORCEK; NANCY SORCEK, AS ADM'R. OF THE ESTATE OF JEFFERSON L. VRZAL, DECEASED; NANCY SORCEK, AS THE SPECIAL ADM'R. OF THE ESTATE OF JOSHUA VRZAL, DECEASED; AND NANCY SORCEK, INDIV., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
V.
CONTRACT TRANSPORTATION SYSTEMS COMPANY, A FOREIGN CORPORATION, AND SHERWIN-WILLIAMS COMPANY, A FOREIGN CORPORATION, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 94 L 07882 The Honorable Richard B. Berland, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Greiman

The jury rendered a verdict in favor of defendants. Plaintiffs allege that the trial court erred in failing to excuse a juror for cause where one of the prospective jurors expressed views, during voir dire, antagonistic to personal injury plaintiffs and stated that she would have difficulty being fair to the plaintiffs. However, after examining the entire record of the trial court's voir dire, we find that the views expressed by the challenged juror did not prevent or impair the performance of her duties as a juror and that the interchange between the trial court, counsel and the juror indicated that she possessed the qualification to be a fair and impartial juror. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

The facts of this case are tragic and the injuries severe and deadly. At approximately 3 a.m. on July 3, 1992, plaintiffs' motor vehicle was traveling south on Interstate 57. This highway has north/south lanes of traffic divided by a 60-foot median strip and has shoulder area on both roadsides. The vehicle occupied by plaintiff and her decedents entered the 60-foot median strip and exited onto the northbound lanes, spinning across these lanes to the far right shoulder of the northbound lanes into the path of defendants' truck cab, which was equipped with a 40-foot trailer.

The plaintiffs' theory of the case was that the operator of the truck negligently failed to keep a proper lookout and failed to control his vehicle in order to avoid a collision. After a trial that included testimony from two eyewitnesses to the incident and several expert witnesses, the jury rendered a verdict in favor of the defendants.

The trial court questioned prospective juror Lynn Harris after the plaintiffs had exhausted their peremptory challenges. Initially, Ms. Harris expressed reservations concerning her ability to be fair and impartial; however, after further discussion with the court and plaintiffs' counsel, she gave answers that allowed the court to determine that she possessed the objectivity to be a proper and conscientious juror who would afford the plaintiffs a fair and impartial trial.

Ms. Harris' first observations were that "when I sat down I really didn't think I could be a fair and impartial juror. In sitting here all day I really don't think I could be." She observed that her sympathies "when I heard the case" leaned towards the defendants. The court immediately noted that she had not heard the case to which she responded: "I understand that but I believe in tort reform based on life experience." Ms. Harris detailed these life experiences as viewing TV commercials where lawyers solicit parents of children born with genetic disorders seeking medical malpractice plaintiffs; previous service as a juror 40 years earlier in a civil action against a railroad where, "it seemed to be the opinion back then that a corporation is an empty pocket, and if anything bad happens, sue the corporation"; listening to people talk; and that "(e)verybody's always sue, sue, sue." Additionally, she related that her daughter was currently a defendant in a "fender bender."

After some questions by the court she said "I'm just saying I'm not sure I could be fair and impartial. I'm not saying I couldn't be. I'm just not sure." Then the court queried: "Do you think people who are involved in accidents resulting in personal injury have the right to their day in court?" to which she answered "yes" and made a similar statement as to defendants in such cases.

After further questions on her family, news sources and recreation, the following exchange occurred:

"Q. Ma'am, if you were chosen to serve on this jury, would you keep an open mind?

A. I would try to.

Q. You would try to be fair?

A. I would try to.

Q. And you would listen to the evidence?

A. Yes.

Q. And you would wait until you heard all of the evidence and the court's instructions with respect to the law before you reached ...


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