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Wakulich v. Mraz

February 06, 2003

MARY LOUISE WAKULICH, INDIV. AND AS SPECIAL ADM'R OF THE ESTATE OF ELIZABETH WAKULICH, DECEASED, APPELLANT,
v.
DENNIS MRAZ ET AL., APPELLEES.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Fitzgerald

Docket No. 92128-Agenda 10-May 2002.

In this appeal we review the dismissal of a complaint pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code). 735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 2000). Generally, plaintiff alleged that defendants were negligent in providing an alcoholic beverage to plaintiff's minor daughter, and negligent in their performance of a voluntary undertaking to care for the minor after she became unconscious, such negligence proximately causing her death. In deciding whether the first claim was properly dismissed, we must consider whether this court should revisit and overturn its decision in Charles v. Seigfried, 165 Ill. 2d 482 (1995), and recognize a cause of action against adult social hosts for serving alcoholic beverages to minors who are subsequently injured. For the reasons discussed below, we adhere to our decision in Charles and decline to recognize any form of social host liability. Because we find, however, that plaintiff has adequately pled a negligence action based on a voluntary undertaking theory, this matter must be remanded to the trial court for further proceedings on plaintiff's complaint.

BACKGROUND

Following the death of her 16-year-old daughter Elizabeth Wakulich, plaintiff Mary Louise Wakulich, individually and as special administrator of Elizabeth's estate, brought an action in the circuit court of Cook County, alleging claims under the Wrongful Death Act (740 ILCS 180/0.01 et seq. (West 1996)) and the Survival Act (755 ILCS 5/27-6 (West 1996)). According to the 10-count "Amended Second Amended Complaint," *fn1 during the evening of June 15, 1997, and continuing into the early morning hours of June 16, 1997, Elizabeth was at the home of defendants, Michael Mraz, his brother Brian Mraz, and their father Dennis Mraz. At that time, Michael was 21 years old, and Brian was 18 years old. Plaintiff alleged that Michael and Brian induced Elizabeth, "by offering monies, by goading and by applying great social pressure," to drink a quart bottle of Goldschlager, a "highly alcoholic and dangerous" beverage, and that Michael and Brian knew, or should have known, that Elizabeth, a minor, could not appreciate the dangers associated with consumption of excessive amounts of alcoholic beverages.

According to the complaint, after consuming the entire bottle of Goldschlager, Elizabeth lost consciousness. Michael and Brian placed her in the family room of their home, where they observed her "vomiting profusely and making gurgling sounds." They later removed her vomit-saturated blouse and placed a pillow under her head to prevent aspiration. Brian and Michael allegedly refused to drive Elizabeth home, did not contact her parents, did not seek medical attention, and "actually prevented other individuals at the home from calling 911 or seeking other medical intervention." Plaintiff further alleged in the complaint that, during the morning of June 16, 1997, Dennis "ordered" Michael and Brian to remove Elizabeth from their home, which they did. *fn2 Elizabeth died later that day. The complaint indicates that Michael was subsequently convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor (720 ILCS 130/2a (West 1996)).

Plaintiff advanced two theories of recovery: (1) that Michael and Brian were negligent in providing alcohol to Elizabeth and inducing her to drink to excess (counts I, II, V and VI); and (2) that Michael, Brian and Dennis were negligent in failing to act reasonably to protect Elizabeth after voluntarily undertaking to care for her after she lost consciousness (counts III, IV, VII, VIII, IX and X).

Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 1996)) for failure to state a cause of action. Defendants principally argued that under this court's decision in Charles, there is no common law social host liability in Illinois. The trial court dismissed the complaint with prejudice. Plaintiff appealed.

The appellate court reversed the dismissal of those counts of the complaint directed against Michael and Brian based on their alleged negligent performance of a voluntary undertaking, affirmed the dismissal of the balance of the complaint, and remanded the matter to the circuit court for further proceedings. 322 Ill. App. 3d 768. We allowed plaintiff's petition for leave to appeal (see 177 Ill. 2d R. 315), and allowed the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association to file an amicus curiae brief in support of plaintiff (see 155 Ill. 2d R. 345). We now affirm the judgment of the appellate court.

ANALYSIS

I.

A motion to dismiss under section 2-615 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 2000)) challenges only the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Jarvis v. South Oak Dodge, Inc., 201 Ill. 2d 81, 85 (2002). We review an order granting a section 2-615 motion to dismiss de novo. Jarvis, 201 Ill. 2d at 86; Weatherman v. Gary-Wheaton Bank of Fox Valley, N.A., 186 Ill. 2d 472, 491 (1999). The critical inquiry is whether the allegations of the complaint, when construed in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, are sufficient to state a cause of action upon which relief may be granted. In making this determination, all well-pleaded facts in the complaint must be taken as true. Jarvis, 201 Ill. 2d at 86; Weatherman, 186 Ill. 2d at 491.

Preliminarily, we note that plaintiff has not challenged the appellate court's affirmance of the dismissal of counts IX and X directed against Dennis Mraz. Accordingly, we consider only the viability of plaintiff's claims against Michael and Brian.

II.

We consider first those counts which alleged that Michael and Brian were negligent in providing an alcoholic beverage to Elizabeth and inducing her to consume a dangerous amount. Defendants contend that these counts were properly dismissed based on our decision in Charles v. Seigfried, 165 Ill. 2d 482 (1995).

In Charles, decided just two years prior to the events giving rise to the present litigation, we addressed whether this court should recognize a cause of action against social hosts for serving alcoholic beverages to minors who are subsequently injured. The factual backdrop against which we decided this issue involved two different social gatherings at which minors were served alcoholic beverages, became intoxicated, and were involved in motor vehicle accidents. In the first case, Lynn Sue Charles, who was 16 years of age at the time, became intoxicated at the defendant's home. She left the party by driving her own automobile and was later involved in a fatal collision. In the second case, 15-year-old Paula Bzdek became intoxicated at the defendants' home, and left the party with an 18-year-old friend, who was also intoxicated. The 18-year-old friend lost control of his vehicle, crashing into oncoming traffic. Bzdek, who was a passenger in the vehicle, suffered permanent injuries. In each case, a complaint was filed premised on theories of social host liability. In each case, the trial court dismissed the complaint, the plaintiff appealed, and the appellate court reversed the dismissal. Charles v. Seigfried, 251 Ill. App. 3d 1059 (1993); Bzdek v. Townsley, 262 Ill. App. 3d 238 (1994).

In the Charles litigation, the appellate court recognized a cause of action against a social host who knowingly serves alcoholic beverages to a minor at the social host's residence, permits the minor to become intoxicated, and allows the minor to leave in a motor vehicle. Charles, 251 Ill. App. 3d at 1064-65, quoting Cravens v. Inman, 223 Ill. App. 3d 1059, 1076 (1991). In the Bzdek litigation, the appellate court recognized a similar cause of action against social hosts who knowingly serve intoxicants to persons under the legal drinking age of 21. Bzdek, 262 Ill. App. 3d at 245-46. In a consolidated appeal, we reversed both decisions. Relying on over a century of precedent, we held that "Illinois has no common law cause of action for injuries arising out of the sale or gift of alcoholic beverages; that the legislature has preempted the field of alcohol-related liability; and that any change in the law governing alcohol-related liability should be made by the General Assembly, or not at all." Charles, 165 Ill. 2d at 486. We thus declined to adopt any form of social host liability.

In the instant case, plaintiff requests that we reconsider and overrule Charles and recognize a common law negligence action against adult social hosts, i.e., persons 18 years of age and older who knowingly serve alcohol to a minor. Based on the doctrine of stare decisis, we deny plaintiff's request and adhere to our decision in Charles.

The doctrine of stare decisis is a basic tenet of our legal system. Hoffman v. Lehnhausen, 48 Ill. 2d 323, 329 (1971). Simply stated, stare decisis reflects the policy of the courts " `to stand by precedents and not to disturb settled points.' " Zimmerman v. Village of Skokie, 183 Ill. 2d 30, 47 (1998), quoting Neff v. George, 364 Ill. 306, 308-09 (1936). In other words, "a question once deliberately examined and decided should be considered as settled and closed to further argument ***." Prall v. Burckhartt, 299 Ill. 19, 41 (1921). The doctrine "promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process." Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 827, 115 L. Ed. 2d 720, 737, 111 S. Ct. 2597, 2609 (1991); see also Prall, 299 Ill. at 41 (stare decisis in "indispensable to the due administration of justice"). Although the doctrine of stare decisis does not constitute an "inexorable command" (Chicago Bar Ass'n v. Illinois State Board of Elections, 161 Ill. 2d 502, 510 (1994)), we will depart from the doctrine only upon a showing of "good cause" (Heimgaertner v. Benjamin Electric Manufacturing Co., 6 Ill. 2d 152, 166-67 (1955); see also People v. Robinson, 187 Ill. 2d 461, 463-64 (1999) ("compelling reasons may require a departure from prior precedent" (emphasis in original))). Plaintiff in the instant case has failed to make a showing of good cause. Indeed, the grounds advanced by plaintiff for the adoption of social host liability are identical to the grounds we considered and rejected in Charles.

Plaintiff argues, for example, that this court should follow the "national trend" recognizing a cause of action against adult social hosts who provide alcohol to minors. We expressly rejected this argument in Charles, concluding that our decision should be "grounded upon the law of Illinois rather than upon contradictory trends elsewhere." Charles, 165 Ill. 2d at 496. As explained in Charles, in Illinois, the common law recognized no cause of action for injuries arising out of the sale or gift of alcoholic beverages. The legislature's adoption of the Dramshop Act (now codified at section 6-21 of the Liquor Control Act of 1934 (235 ILCS 5/6-21 (West 2000)) created a limited and exclusive statutory cause of action by imposing a form of no-fault liability upon dramshops for selling or giving intoxicating liquors to persons who subsequently injure third parties. Charles, 165 Ill. 2d at 486-89. Through its passage and continual amendment of the Dramshop Act, the General Assembly has preempted the entire field of alcohol-related liability. Charles, 165 Ill. 2d at 491.

Plaintiff in the instant case also argues that because Illinois law clearly treats minors as a "protected class" when it comes to the consumption of alcohol, tort liability should apply to adult social hosts who serve alcoholic beverages to minors. We considered and dismissed this very argument in Charles. Charles, 165 Ill. 2d at 491. "Legislative preemption in the field of alcohol-related liability extends to social hosts who provide alcoholic beverages to another person, whether that person be an adult, an underage person, or a minor." (Emphasis added.) Charles, 165 Ill. 2d at 491.

Plaintiff here further contends that "public policy" dictates that this court should recognize social host liability for the provision of alcohol to minors. In Charles, however, we observed that the "primary expression of Illinois public and social policy should emanate from the legislature." Charles, 165 Ill. 2d at 493. We explained:

"The General Assembly, by its very nature, has a superior ability to gather and synthesize data pertinent to the issue. It is free to solicit information and advice from the many public and private organizations that may be impacted. Moreover, it is the only entity with the power to weigh and properly balance the many competing societal, economic, and policy considerations involved. These considerations include such issues as whether sufficient remedies are already available to injured parties through their own insurance ***, the effect on homeowners' and renters' insurance policies and rates, whether the social hosts' liability should be limited, and what standards of conduct should govern social hosts.

This court, on the other hand, is ill-equipped to fashion a law on this subject that would best serve the people of Illinois. We can consider only one case at a time and are constrained by the facts before us. Moreover, if we were to undertake to change the rules concerning alcohol-related liability, the law would be in a confused, disorderly state for many years while the trial courts attempted ...


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