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Epping v. Commonwealth Edison Company

July 26, 2000

NANCY EPPING AND HUGH EPPING, PLAINTIFFS,
NANCY EPPING, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
V.
COMMONWEALTH EDISON COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 96 L 8356 Honorable William D. Maddux, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Wolfson

The only matter to consider in this case is whether a $9 million non-economic damages award by a jury falls outside the range of fair and reasonable compensation. Commonwealth Edison contends the award, standing alone or in comparison to awards in other cases, is excessive. It requests a new trial or a remittitur of $5 million. We affirm the jury's verdict.

BACKGROUND

One sunny Thursday -- April 18, 1996 -- Nancy Epping (Epping) was driving south on Route 31 toward Algonquin when, in seconds, her life changed forever.

Mark Schleehauf, a Commonwealth Edison (Edison) employee, was driving his Edison "stake truck" north on Route 31. He just finished eating a pear and leaned over to throw away the core. In that split second he failed to see the car in front of him slow to a stop to make a left-hand turn into the YMCA. When Schleehauf looked up it was too late. He tried to swerve to the right, but hit the car, which was driven by Reverend James Bensing. Bensing's car was forced over the centerline and into oncoming southbound traffic. Bensing's car plowed into Epping's car.

Epping sustained serious injuries, including: multiple open fractures of the right proximal tibial plateau (in the area of the knee); an open fracture of the right foot; a large wound over the top of the right foot; a closed fracture of the left ankle; a fractured left wrist; and a fractured and dislocated left hip with cracked pelvis. Epping had to be extricated from her car and air-lifted by helicopter to Lutheran General Hospital.

Edison admitted liability for the accident. Epping's suit against Edison proceeded to trial on the issue of damages.

The jury learned that when the accident occurred Epping was 49 years old, had been married for 28 years, was the mother of one daughter and a grandmother of one. Epping was a part-time teacher of anthropology at McHenry County Community College and the executive director of the Elgin Public Museum. She traveled extensively as the president of the Midwest Museum Conference. She had been named the Business Woman of the Year and the YWCA Woman of the Year. She enjoyed sailing and reading.

After the accident, Epping's injuries caused her to undergo 32 operations and procedures between 1996 and 1999. The jury viewed photographs of Epping's severely deformed leg and foot. It saw a video depicting a day in Epping's life.

The jury learned that Epping is unable to walk and needs assistance getting out of bed, getting into a chair, or getting onto the toilet. It learned she requires assistance attending to matters of personal hygiene. She can no longer drive a car and, because her left wrist joint has been "fixed" in place, she has difficulty maneuvering her own wheelchair. Epping's right leg is called "flail leg" and cannot support her weight. Doctors are optimistic that with further reconstructive surgery Epping might have the future ability to independently "ambulate" around the interior of her home with the aid of a walker or by holding on to furniture. But there is still the potential that Epping's right leg will have to be amputated.

Despite a number of surgeries, Epping continues to experience difficulty with her left hip. Epping will never be able to return to work, independently ambulate outside her home, or be able to perform the normal tasks of living -- cleaning, cooking, or taking care of household chores. Her life expectancy is 32 years.

After receiving all the evidence and the instructions, the jury awarded Epping $4.5 million for past and future economic damages, along with $9 million for non-economic damages, which consisted of $2,250,000 each for disability, disfigurement, and past and future pain and suffering.

Edison filed a post-trial motion requesting remittitur or, in the alternative, a new trial. The motion was denied by order of the court entered August 17, 1999. On ...


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