United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
November 2, 2004.
ALLEN J. PIERCE, et al., Plaintiffs,
SYSTEM TRANSPORT, INC., et al., Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: HARRY LEINENWEBER, District Judge
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Before the Court is Plaintiffs' Motion for Leave to File Second
Amended Complaint. For the following reasons, Plaintiffs' Motion
is granted in part and denied in part.
The circumstances of this case are tragic. On September 1,
2001, Plaintiffs were traveling through Indiana en route to a
family reunion. While driving on Interstate 65 in Hobart,
Indiana, Plaintiffs' car had a flat tire and they pulled onto the
shoulder of the interstate, just past a construction zone.
Unfortunately, for Plaintiffs, Defendant System Transport, Inc.
("System") was transporting two large lifts manufactured by
Defendant Genie Industries, Inc. ("Genie") on a tractor and
flatbed trailer traveling in the same direction on Interstate 65.
Shortly after entering a curve in the construction zone, the
lifts apparently shifted on the bed of the trailer, causing the
tractor-trailer to lose control. As the trailer tilted onto the
roadway, the two lifts came loose and one struck Plaintiffs' car. As a result of
the collision, Plaintiff Allen J. Pierce suffered serious
injuries, including the loss of his leg, and his infant son was
killed in the ensuing fire in the back of the car.
Plaintiffs allege that the lifts were negligently loaded in
Washington State prior to interstate transport. Plaintiffs also
allege that the driver of the truck was negligent in his
operation of the tractor-trailer. Defendants contend that the
construction zone work rendered the interstate unreasonably
Plaintiffs now seek to amend their Complaint in several ways.
Plaintiffs seek to add a survival claim on behalf of Allen M.
Pierce, claims for punitive damages, and a request that
Defendants be held jointly and severally liable.
A. The Court's Prior Ruling That Indiana Law Controls
The initial hurdle facing Plaintiffs' requested amendment is
this Court's prior ruling on April 23, 2002, which held that
Indiana law controls in this case. See Pierce v. System
Transport, Inc., 2002 WL 731136 (N.D. Ill. 2002). The pertinent
portion of this ruling was based on System's Motion for
Declaration of Controlling Law. In its motion, System contended
that Indiana law should control. In their response brief,
Plaintiffs do not quarrel the partial conclusion
reached by with [sic] System Transportation in its
choice of law analysis, but only insofar as the
Negligence Counts are concerned. Plaintiffs do not
dispute that Indiana law will likely govern the negligence claims. However,
this is only a portion of the claims. In the first
instance, System Transport ignores the Counts in
Plaintiff's Complaint that raise claims under
substantial federal law and product liability law.
The products claims may be governed by Washington
State law. More discovery must be provided to
accurately [sic] answer this question.
Pls. Resp. Mem. at 14.
In its April 23, 2002 ruling, the Court specifically noted that
Plaintiffs had not contested that Indiana law should control, at
least with regard to the negligence counts. See Pierce, 2002 WL
731136 at *7-8. Although noting Plaintiffs' apparent concession,
the Court nonetheless engaged in a brief choice of law analysis,
and determined that "Indiana is clearly the state with the most
significant relationship to the events in question." See id. at
*8. The Court's holding, however, depended in part on Plaintiff's
apparent stipulation that Indiana law would control: "[s]ince
both parties appear to agree that Indiana law should control, and
since the situs of the events was in Indiana, System's Motion for
Declaration of Controlling law is granted." Id. Plaintiffs did
not file a motion for reconsideration of this ruling.
B. The Law of the Case Doctrine Bars the Survival Count and the
Claims for Joint and Several Liability
Under the law of the case doctrine, a ruling made in an earlier
phase of a case controls throughout the proceedings. See Tice v.
American Airlines, Inc., 373 F.3d 851
, 853-54 (7th Cir. 2004).
This doctrine is a rule of practice that encourages efficiency,
consistency, and finality of legal decisions made during the life of case. The law of the case doctrine, however,
is not an absolute limit on a court's power: a court retains the
discretion to revise an earlier ruling of law, but generally
should only do so when there are changed circumstances in law or
fact that render application of an earlier ruling manifestly
unjust or clearly wrong. See id.; see also, Avitia v.
Metropolitan Club of Chicago, 49 F.3d 1219
, 1227-28 (7th Cir.
1995); Payne v. Churchich, 161 F.3d 1030
, 1037, n. 8 (7th Cir.
The difficulty Plaintiffs face here is that Indiana law
effectively nullifies their requested amendments. Specifically,
Indiana does not allow concurrent survival and wrongful death
claims, and is a several liability state. (Indiana also has
certain statutory limits on punitive damages, but Plaintiffs are
apparently seeking to add claims within the purview of Indiana
Plaintiffs, of course, argue as they must that this Court's
prior ruling on choice of law is not subject to the law of the
case doctrine because intervening facts allow for an exception.
Plaintiffs initially note that the briefing was completed on
System's Motion for a Declaration of Law before discovery
commenced. Plaintiffs also note that although they did not take
issue with the "initial application of Indiana law at that point
in the proceedings," they subsequently learned in discovery
certain pertinent facts that mitigate against a "rote application
of Indiana law to all issues in this case." Pls. Mem. at 2-3.
Specifically, Plaintiffs point to certain facts that were
"previously unavailable," and now require reconsideration of the
prior ruling. These "new" facts include: (1) Defendants'
principal places of business are either Washington or Oregon; (2)
the major decisions in how to transport the lifts were made in
Washington; (3) the lifts were negligently loaded in Washington;
(4) Market Transport, an Oregon company, played a role in the
arrangement for transporting the lifts; and (5) Allen M. Pierce,
the infant in the back seat, may have survived for some period of
time after the initial collision. See id. at 4-5. According to
Plaintiffs, these facts demonstrate that Washington law should
apply on the issue of joint and several liability, Indiana law on
the issue of negligence and punitive damages, and Illinois law on
the issue of the survival claim and compensatory damages.
Defendants initially argue with substantial persuasive force
that Plaintiffs knew, or should have known, virtually all of
these facts at the time (or shortly thereafter) of System's
Motion for a Declaration of Law. This is significant because
parties cannot evade the law of the case doctrine by relying on
"new" facts that were available at the time of the initial
ruling. See Intergraph Corp. v. Intel Corp., 253 F.3d 695,
697-99 (Fed. Cir. 2001). For instance, Defendants attach a
witness statement taken shortly after the September 2001 accident
that indicates that the infant decedent may have still been alive for some period during
the fire. In addition, Defendants claim that their Rule 26(A)(1)
disclosures contained contracts that unambiguously showed the
business locations of the Defendants, as well as the load
specifications. For the most part, Plaintiffs ignore and fail to
rebut these allegations.
In any event, the purported new facts that Plaintiffs present
simply do not create the "extraordinary circumstances" necessary
to warrant a departure from the law of the case doctrine. Cf.
Christianson v. Colt Indus. Operating Corp., 486 U.S. 800, 816
(1988); see also Tice, 373 F.3d at 854. That is, the new facts
marshaled by Plaintiffs do not indicate that the Court's prior
ruling was plainly wrong or otherwise suggest that adherence to
such a ruling would result in a manifest injustice. See
Christianson, 486 U.S. at 816; see also Vidimos, Inc. v. Wysong
Laser Co., 179 F.3d 1063, 1066 (7th Cir. 2000). Instead, these
additional facts merely provide further ammunition for an
argument as to why Washington or Illinois law should apply to
certain issues of liability or recovery. For instance, the fact
that the decision-making and loading occurred in Washington
between Washington companies provides a toehold for the argument
that Washington joint and several liability should apply here.
But this is not the type of intervening fact that plainly
indicates that Indiana law does not apply. The opposing argument
that the site of the injury determines the controlling law which remains a
general presumption in Illinois choice of law jurisprudence is
still a valid counterpoint for why Indiana law applies here. See
Miller v. Long Airdox Co., 914 F.2d 976, 978 (7th Cir. 1990).
Simply put, at this procedural stage of the litigation,
Plaintiffs have to show much more than the fact that additional
discovery has bolstered an argument that they did not fully
articulate before: Plaintiffs must show that these new facts
unequivocally demonstrate something fundamentally wrong or unfair
with the Court's prior ruling. See Christianson,
486 U.S. at 816. They have not done this.
Plaintiffs, however, now argue that, two-and-a-half years ago
in their response to System's Motion for a Declaration of Law,
they "reserved the right to contest choice of law on certain
issues." Pls. Reply Br. at 10. A fair reading of the passage
cited, however, indicates only that Plaintiffs attempted to
reserve the right to argue that Washington law potentially
applied to certain product liability claims, but did not argue
that Indiana law applied to the negligence claims. In any event,
the Court at that time did not find that Plaintiffs reserved any
rights and held that Plaintiffs had stipulated to Indiana law on
the negligence counts. Thus, the ship sailed on this argument
several years ago: if Plaintiffs believed that the Court erred in
its reading of their position, they should have raised this for
reconsideration at some point shortly after the opinion was
issued. Plaintiffs cannot seek refuge under the law of the case doctrine for this particular
argument because there are no new intervening facts that can
change what Plaintiffs submitted in their brief.
The Court, of course, has discretion here: the law of the case
doctrine is certainly not an iron-clad jurisdictional rule. But
nonetheless the circumstances of this case do not indicate that
the Court should exercise its discretion and ignore the general
prudential rule that prior decisions of law remain constant
throughout a case. This is not a case where there has been a
significant intervening change in the legal or factual landscape
that warrants abandonment of a previous decision. For instance,
the fact that an interstate trucking company would make business
decisions of how to load its cargo in a state other than Indiana
cannot have been an unexpected or unforeseeable fact at the time
of the prior ruling.
Moreover, the passage of time here two and a half years is
substantial and represents inexcusable delay. See Vidimos,
179 F.3d at 1066. In addition, allowing joint and several liability
here could substantially prejudice Defendants, who have been
defending this case expecting to be under a several liability
regime. The Defendants are somewhat cryptic about how their legal
strategy might have been different under a joint and several
liability, and Plaintiffs rightly points out that Defendants have
an interest in lowering their proportional share of fault under
any regime. It does not take much imagination, however, to recognize
that Defendants' willingness to cooperate and collaborate in
defense strategies may vary in relation to how much of a
co-defendant's bill a particular defendant may be on the hook
As a final note, Plaintiffs also argue that the Court should
have applied a depecage analysis in its prior ruling (and
certainly should apply it in any reconsideration). See Pls.
Mem. at 2. According to Plaintiffs, a depecage analysis would
result in Illinois law applying to the survival counts and
compensatory damages in general because Illinois purportedly "has
the strongest interests in seeing that its injured citizens are
compensated." Indiana law should apply to punitive damages,
however, because Indiana purportedly has "the strongest interest
in deterring misconduct within its borders." Finally, Washington
law should apply to joint and several liability because
Washington has the strongest interest in regulating the
apportionment of liability among its citizens. Assuming
arguendo that the Court previously failed to apply such an
analysis, this attack squarely falls under the purview of a
motion for reconsideration, which should be timely filed after
the entry of order or judgment that is being attacked. See,
e.g., Fed.R. Civ. Proc. 60. Again, Plaintiffs did not attack
this Court's analysis during the course of nearly two and a half
years, and thus cannot now argue that a different legal tact was
warranted. The Court is sympathetic that Indiana law may not be as
favorable in some aspects to Plaintiffs as Illinois or Washington
law. That said, Indiana law certainly provides an adequate
potential remedy for Plaintiffs. Accordingly, the best course
here is to maintain consistency in this Court's rulings and
adhere to the law of the case doctrine.
C. Plaintiffs' Claims for Punitive Damages are Timely and are not
Barred by the Law of the Case Doctrine
Defendants argue strenuously that Plaintiffs' Motion is
untimely. They argue that this motion comes after the close of
fact discovery, and after years during which they defended the
case under the well-founded assumption that Indiana law
controlled the case. Thus, to allow an eleventh-hour change of
law would severely prejudice Defendants.
Nothing in this three-year-old case has been timely, however.
Discovery deadlines have been repeatedly extended, and Defendants
have not been faultless in that regard. Expert discovery is not
complete. And there is no trial date set. Although Defendants'
argument on timeliness and prejudice may have some traction on
the issue of joint and several liability because, as noted above,
that could have changed defense strategy, allowing claims for
punitive damages does not have the same prejudicial impact: all
Defendants have a unitary interest in showing that their behavior
was not wanton or willful. Accordingly, given the lenient
pleading requirements of Rule 15, it cannot be said that Plaintiffs'
Motion is untimely.
Nor does this Court's prior ruling nullify Plaintiffs' request
for punitive damage. Although Indiana law may have certain
statutory limits, and may even forbid punitive damages on a
wrongful death count, it does not wholesale forbid such damages.
As a result, the best course here is to allow Plaintiffs to amend
their complaint on the issue of punitive damages, and then
determine the exact contour of permissible damages at, or at
least closer to, trial.
For the foregoing reasons, the Plaintiffs' Motion for Leave to
File Second Amended Complaint is DENIED with respect to adding
a survival count and claims for joint and several liability, but
GRANTED with respect to adding claims for punitive damages.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
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