Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 01 M1 301166 Honorable James P. McCarthy, Judge Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Reid
Following the entry of an order by the trial court barring defendants from rejecting an arbitration award and the subsequent entry of judgment on that award, plaintiffs brought the instant appeal. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.
The underlying lawsuit in this matter is a personal injury and property damage action relating to a traffic accident. The matter was scheduled for arbitration. The parties appeared in person and by counsel at the arbitration hearing.
Martin and Maria Renteria owned the vehicle being driven by Rosendo Renteria. The complaint alleges that the Renteria vehicle hit both the rear of a vehicle owned and operated by Rosie Givens and the rear of a vehicle owned and operated by Trenika Smith. The Renterias filed an appearance, answer and jury demand with leave of court.
On October 19, 2001, defense counsel received plaintiffs' Supreme Court Rule 90(c) documents. 166 Ill. 2d R. 90(c). Thereafter, plaintiffs received leave of court to supplement the Supreme Court. Rule 90(c) package. During the arbitration, when a dispute arose regarding defense counsel's objection to the Rule 90(c) documents, the arbitrators indicated they would take the objection under advisement. The arbitrators instructed the parties to proceed. Defense counsel pressed the arbitrators for an immediate ruling on the objection. In an immediate ruling, the arbitrators overruled the objection, again ordering the parties to proceed. Defense counsel refused, despite indications that the arbitrators believed the defense's refusal was contumacious. Defense counsel was insistent upon learning the basis for the arbitrators' ruling.
There is some dispute as to what happened next. According to the defense, the arbitrators then announced they were adjourning the hearing. According to the plaintiffs, the arbitrators temporarily recessed the hearing so they could consult with a circuit court judge. Plaintiffs argue that at no time did the arbitrators terminate the hearing or instruct the parties to leave. The arbitrators' award uses the word "adjourn" in the written document. The arbitrators then contacted a circuit court judge for advice. When they returned, they discovered that the defendants and their attorneys had left. The arbitrators then proceeded in the absence of the defendants. Evidence was taken, followed by the issuance of an award and a unanimous written finding that the defendants had failed to participate in the arbitration in a meaningful manner because of both how they left and their conduct before they left.
The arbitrators entered an order containing the following language:
"We the undersigned arbitrators, having been duly
appointed and sworn (or affirmed), make the
following award: Award in favor of Trenika Smith &
against Defendants Rosendo Renteria, Maria Renteria
& Martin Renteria for $10,000 plus costs. The panel
unanimously finds that the defendants failed to
arbitrate in good faith and a meaningful manner.
Defense counsel (Parrillo, Weiss per atty Fabrini)
objected to certain Rule 90 materials & continued to
argue the objections after overruled. After defense
counsel repeatedly refused the panels [sic]
direction to proceed with arbitration, counsel
became contemptuous to the panel yelling &
continuing refusal to the panels [sic] direction to
proceed. Counsel for defense was warned that the
panel would contact the judge presiding to report
contempt of the panel. When the panel adjourned to
call the presiding judge, defense counsel summarily
left with defendants precluding any further
participation by defendants. Judge Laurie ordered
the panel to proceed with the evidence of the
plaintiff & a hearing was held."
The defendants paid the rejection fee within the statutory 30-day window and served a notice rejecting the arbitration award and requesting a trial. The plaintiffs moved to bar the rejection of the award under Supreme Court Rule 91. 145 Ill. 2d R. 91. In that motion, the plaintiffs urged the trial court to consider defendants' departure before the introduction of any arbitration testimony to be tantamount to a failure to be present at all.
The defendants filed a response supported by affidavits supporting their claim that the arbitrators had declared the arbitration adjourned and instructed all parties to leave the room. All three arbitrators then left the room. The plaintiffs admit the arbitrators did leave the room, but claimed it was only to check a point of law with the trial court, not to end proceedings for the day. The plaintiffs claim the arbitrators did not adjourn the proceedings for the day. The defendants argued before the trial court that they believed the arbitration was over when they left. Additionally, defense counsel claims that at least one of the arbitrators was prejudiced against the defense law firm. The defense further argued that Rule 91(b) states that a bad-faith finding is only prima facie evidence that a party has failed to participate in good faith, but it is not meant to be dispositive of the issue.
The trial court declined to take evidence when considering the motion to bar rejection of the award. The defense made an offer of proof as to what the witnesses present in court would have testified. During the offer of proof, the following discussion took place:
"THE COURT: You can make your offer of proof.
[DEFENSE]: I will make my offer of proof as an
officer of the court that I would call - then, I