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Saichek v. Lupa

March 20, 2003


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Rarick

Agenda 15-November 2002.

The sole issue in this appeal is whether a plaintiff who has brought an action against two defendants to recover damages for a single, indivisible set of injuries arising from concurrent but independent acts of negligence may continue with her claim against the first of the defendants after being awarded and paid the full amount of damages she proved following entry of a default judgment in her favor against the second defendant. The circuit court held that she could not and dismissed her claim against the first defendant pursuant to section 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2000)). The appellate court reversed and remanded for further proceedings. 329 Ill. App. 3d 1059. We granted the first defendant's petition for leave to appeal. 177 Ill. 2d R. 315. For the reasons that follow, we now reverse the judgment of the appellate court.

The pertinent facts are not in dispute. In October of 1998, plaintiff, Barbara Saichek, was the passenger in a taxicab operated by Valentin N. Zdunkevich. While the cab was stopped and waiting to make a turn at an intersection in the Village of Northbrook, it was rear-ended by an automobile driven by Margaret Lupa. As a result of the collision, plaintiff suffered severe and permanent personal injuries. In addition, some of her personal property was lost or damaged.

Plaintiff subsequently filed a two-count complaint in the circuit court of Cook County to recover damages from Lupa (count I) and, "in the alternative," from Zdunkevich (count II) based on their alleged negligence. Lupa answered the complaint and participated in the litigation. Zdunkevich did not. After being served with process, Zdunkevich failed to enter an appearance, file pleadings or make any other response to plaintiff's complaint. *fn1 Plaintiff therefore moved for entry of a default judgment against him pursuant to section 2-1301 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-1301 (West 2000)). That motion was granted. An order of default was entered in favor of plaintiff and against Zdunkevich, and Zdunkevich was duly notified of the default as required by statute. See 735 ILCS 5/2-1302 (West 2000).

Following entry of the default order, a "prove up" hearing was held at which plaintiff presented testimony and documentary evidence to substantiate the loss she had suffered. Based on that evidence, the circuit court assessed plaintiff's damages at $40,792. The court thereupon entered judgment in favor of plaintiff and against Zdunkevich in that amount. It also awarded plaintiff her costs.

Once she obtained the default judgment against Zdunkevich, plaintiff initiated nonwage garnishment proceedings against his insurer, American Country Insurance Company (American Country), in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Code of Civil Procedure. See 735 ILCS 5/12-701 et seq. (West 2000). American Country appeared and answered, indicating that it provided insurance coverage for Zdunkevich and had no objection to the garnishment. Based on American Country's stipulation, the circuit court entered judgment against the company for $43,681.73, representing the amount of plaintiff's judgment against Zdunkevich in the underlying action plus costs and accrued interest.

American Country paid plaintiff the full amount due. At the company's request, plaintiff, through her attorney, executed a document entitled "Satisfaction Release of Judgment." The document recited that "having received full satisfaction and payment," plaintiff, by her attorney, was releasing the judgment against "only *** Zdunkevich and American Country Insurance." The document further recited that in accordance with section 12-183(h) of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/12-183(h) (West 2000)), the judgment in favor of plaintiff was vacated and her cause of action dismissed, but "only as to *** Zdunkevich and *** American Country Insurance Co." A parenthetical added that the "cause remains pending as to defendant Malgorzata Lupa." *fn2

After that document was executed and filed, Lupa moved to dismiss plaintiff's complaint against her pursuant to section 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2000)). As grounds for her motion, Lupa argued that plaintiff had sustained a single, indivisible set of injuries for which there was a single, indivisible set of damages and that plaintiff was therefore entitled to but one opportunity to prove what her damages were. In Lupa's view, plaintiff could have deferred that opportunity until after she had presented her case against Lupa. Instead, she elected to substantiate her damages at the "prove up" hearing following Zdunkevich's default. Based on the evidence plaintiff presented at that hearing, the trial court determined that plaintiff's damages amounted to $40,792 and entered judgment for her in that amount. Plaintiff collected the judgment in full, plus interest and costs. Lupa contended that the total amount of damages is not subject to relitigation before a different trier of fact and that plaintiff has therefore already received all that she would ever be entitled to receive. Further litigation would accomplish nothing.

The circuit court agreed. It distinguished this case from situations involving the Joint Tortfeasor Contribution Act (740 ILCS 100/0.01 et seq. (West 2000)) where a plaintiff who has settled with one defendant is allowed to proceed to trial against one or more remaining defendants, subject to the non-settling defendants' right to a setoff for the amount of the settlement. Here, there was no settlement. The amounts recovered by plaintiff were the product of a judicial determination. The court held that once plaintiff elected to obtain such a judicial determination, she could not seek additional amounts in a subsequent proceeding. The damage award assessed by the court at the "prove up" hearing served as a cap on the total amount of damages plaintiff could recover. Because plaintiff had accepted payment for the full amount of the judgment, the court held, there was nothing left for her to recover. No uncompensated injuries remained. Accordingly, the court granted Lupa's motion and dismissed plaintiff's claim against her. *fn3

The appellate court reversed, relying on Holman v. Simborg, 152 Ill. App. 3d 453 (1987). In Holman, the plaintiff had filed a two-count complaint to recover damages for injuries he sustained while working on the roof of a building owned and managed by defendants. Count I sounded in negligence. Count II asserted a claim under the Structural Work Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 48, par. 60 et seq.) At trial, the court directed a verdict for defendants on the Structural Work Act claim. The negligence count, however, proceeded to trial before a jury. The jury found in favor of plaintiff and against defendants on that count. It assessed plaintiff's damages at $116,371, but found that he was 65% at fault and reduced his damages by a corresponding amount to $40,730.

The appellate court subsequently reversed the directed verdict and remanded for a new trial on the Structural Work Act claim. In so doing, it specified that damages were fixed at the $116,371 amount awarded by the jury. Prior to the new trial, plaintiff accepted payment of $40,730 plus interest in satisfaction of the judgment on the negligence claim, a sum which corresponded to the amount he would have received after application of the reduction based on his comparative fault. The trial court issued an order releasing the original judgment against defendants. The matter then proceeded to trial on the Structural Work Act claim. At that trial, plaintiff prevailed on the Structural Work Act cause of action and was awarded $75,641, the difference between the original jury verdict of $116,371 and the $40,730 which defendants had previously paid to plaintiff.

The judgment for plaintiff triggered a second appeal, this time by defendants. Defendants argued that the payment they made on the negligence claim satisfied all claims plaintiff could assert against them based on the injury at issue in the case, including her Structural Work Act claim. Accordingly, they argued that plaintiff should not have been permitted to obtain a second judgment after retrial on the Structural Work Act count.

In rejecting defendants' argument, the appellate court focused on what the parties had intended when defendants offered and plaintiff accepted the $40,730 payment prior to the retrial. Viewing the language used in the circuit court's order of satisfaction and release in light of the circumstances existing at the time of the transaction, the court concluded that plaintiff's acceptance of the initial $40,730 payment was not intended to serve as full satisfaction of plaintiff's injury claim. Accordingly, it affirmed the judgment of the circuit court.

The appellate court in the case before us found this precedent to be decisive. Following the approach taken in Holman, it looked to the intention of the parties. The court observed that the "Satisfaction Release of Judgment" executed by plaintiff following entry of judgment in her favor in the garnishment proceedings stated that it pertained only to the judgment against Zdunkevich and his insurer and that "the cause remains pending as to defendant *** Lupa." Comparing the situation ...

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