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Sterling v. Rockford Mass Transit District

February 6, 2003

RUTH STERLING, SPECIAL ADM'R OF THE ESTATE OF HOUSTON STERLING, DECEASED, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE AND CROSS-APPELLANT,
v.
ROCKFORD MASS TRANSIT DISTRICT, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT AND CROSS-APPELLEE (JOHN PARTHENIOS AND JIM PARTHENIOS, INDIV. AND D/B/A PARTHENIOS LUNCHEONETTE, AND DELILA CAMPBELL, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES; MARLENE CARTER AND RALPHFIELD HUDSON, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS).
RUTH STERLING, SPECIAL ADM'R OF THE ESTATE OF HOUSTON STERLING; JOHN PARTHENIOS AND JIM PARTHENIOS, INDIV. AND D/B/A PARTHENIOS LUNCHEONETTE; DELILA CAMPBELL; AND HARLEY FOSTER, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,
v.
ROCKFORD MASS TRANSIT DISTRICT, MARLENE CARTER, AND RALPHFIELD HUDSON, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Winnebago County. Nos. 95--L--238, 95--L--308, 95--LM--348, 96--AR--199, 97--L--69. Honorable Gerald F. Grubb, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Grometer

The plaintiffs in this case are Ruth Sterling, as special administrator of the estate of Houston Sterling, deceased (Sterling); John Parthenios and Jim Parthenios, individually and d/b/a Parthenios Luncheonette, a partnership (collectively Parthenios); Delila Campbell; and Harley Foster. Plaintiffs filed multicount complaints against defendants Ralphfield Hudson, Rockford Mass Transit District (RMTD), and Marlene Carter, an RMTD employee. Plaintiffs sought recovery for injuries and damages sustained in an automobile accident. Plaintiffs' theory of liability against RMTD was based on the doctrine of respondeat superior for the alleged negligent conduct of Carter.

At the close of the evidence, plaintiffs moved to voluntarily dismiss Carter. The trial court granted the motion with prejudice. The trial court then denied RMTD's motion to dismiss the counts against it. A Winnebago County jury returned a general verdict in plaintiffs' favor. Following the denial of their posttrial motions, RMTD and Hudson appealed. We consolidated the appeals for purposes of review. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

This case involves an accident that occurred on March 7, 1995, at approximately 10 a.m. at the intersection of Mulberry and Church Streets in Rockford, Illinois. At the site of the accident, Church Street is a one-way road with three lanes permitting only southbound traffic. Mulberry Street is a two-lane thoroughfare with one lane for westbound traffic and one lane for eastbound traffic. The intersection at Mulberry and Church Streets is controlled by a traffic signal. A restaurant known as the Parthenios Luncheonette is located on the southwest corner of the intersection.

Just prior to the accident, Carter was driving an RMTD bus westbound on Mulberry Street. The bus contained two passengers, Angela Grant and Harley Foster. As Carter approached Church Street from the east, the traffic signal at the intersection was red, and she brought her vehicle to a stop. Carter's bus was the third vehicle behind the stop line at the intersection. After the signal turned green, Carter followed the two vehicles ahead of her into the intersection. At approximately the same time, Ralphfield Hudson was driving a Cadillac southbound on Church Street. Hudson's vehicle struck the right front side of the bus. The bus then collided with the Parthenios Luncheonette. As a result of the accident, Houston Sterling was killed and Delila Campbell was injured. Both Houston and Campbell were patrons of the Parthenios Luncheonette. Foster was also injured in the accident.

The accident spawned several lawsuits. Ruth Sterling, as special administrator for the estate of her deceased husband, brought a multiple-count lawsuit naming Hudson, RMTD, and Carter as defendants. Counts I, III, IV, and V of Sterling's seventh amended complaint were directed against RMTD. Counts III and V were dismissed prior to trial. Count I of Sterling's seventh amended complaint alleged that RMTD, by and through its employee, Carter, was negligent in:

"(a) operat[ing] a motor vehicle without keeping a proper and sufficient lookout, to wit, [Carter] failed to see if there was any southbound traffic before and while she entered the intersection;

(b) fail[ing] to give an audible warning with a horn when a special hazard existed, to wit, a vehicle was approaching and entering the intersection from [Carter's] right;

(c) proceed[ing] at a speed which was greater than reasonable and proper and fail[ing] to slow or stop her vehicle while approaching, while entering, and while crossing an intersection and when a special hazard existed, and fail[ing] to decrease speed to avoid colliding with a vehicle contrary to the provisions of Ill.Rev.Stat. Ch. 95-1/2, Section 11-601 [sic];

(d) fail[ing] to drive within a single lane contrary to the provisions of Ill.Rev.Stat. Ch. 95-1/2, Section 11-601 [sic];

(e) after the collision with the HUDSON vehicle, fail[ing] to decrease the speed of the bus to avoid colliding with and entering into the Parthenios Restaurant;

(f) fail[ing] to keep both hands on the steering wheel while driving, and as a result thereof, after the impact with the HUDSON vehicle, the defendant, CARTER, failed to maintain control of her vehicle, and failed to take any evasive action to avoid entering the Parthenios Restaurant;

(g) operat[ing] her motor vehicle through the intersection in violation of the automatic traffic lights contrary to the provisions of Ill.Rev.Stat. Ch. 95-1/2, Section 5/11-306 [sic]."

Count IV of the complaint, which alleged wilful and wanton misconduct on the part of RMTD, was dismissed without prejudice. Relevant here, the suits filed by plaintiffs Parthenios, Campbell, and Foster each contained allegations similar to count I of Sterling's complaint. For purposes of trial, plaintiffs' suits were consolidated with a complaint filed by Carter against Hudson and a counterclaim for contribution and property damage filed by RMTD and Carter against Hudson.

Following the presentation of all of the evidence, but prior to closing arguments, Sterling, Parthenios, and Foster moved to voluntarily dismiss Carter as a defendant. The trial court granted the motion with prejudice. The following day, Campbell also moved to dismiss Carter as a defendant. The trial court granted Campbell's motion with prejudice. RMTD then moved for a judgment in its favor, arguing that because its agent (Carter) had been dismissed there could be no cause of action against it, the principal. The trial court denied RMTD's motion without comment. With respect to the lawsuits brought by Sterling, Parthenios, Foster, and Campbell, the jury returned a general verdict against Hudson and RMTD, apportioning 70% of the fault to Hudson and 30% to RMTD. The jury awarded $1.7 million to Sterling, $121,853 to Parthenios, $1,671.75 to Foster, and $29,532 to Campbell. With respect to the claims against Hudson, the jury awarded Carter $420,288.91 and RMTD $5,411.35. The awards to Carter and RMTD reflected a 30% reduction for the negligence attributable to them.

RMTD filed a posttrial motion arguing, among other things, that it was entitled to judgment notwithstanding the verdict (judgment n.o.v.). RMTD advanced three reasons why it was entitled to judgment n.o.v. First, RMTD renewed its argument that the voluntary dismissal with prejudice of Carter required its dismissal. Second, RMTD claimed that plaintiffs failed to prove that Carter could have stopped the bus after the impact with Hudson's vehicle. Third, RMTD asserted that there is no duty on the part of a driver to anticipate the negligence of others. The trial court denied RMTD's motion. In rejecting RMTD's argument that Carter's dismissal constituted an "adjudication on the merits," the trial court relied on DeLuna v. Treister, 185 Ill. 2d 565 (1999). The trial court explained:

"In this case, it is clear that the stated reason for dismissing Ms. Carter at the close of the evidence was that it would simplify the instructions to the jury, and the unstated reasons which defendant asserted in argument was it was a strategy decision to keep the jury from sympathizing with her because of her emotional outbursts of crying in court. There was no evidence of a settlement with her and a release having been given in exchange for ...


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