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Caletz v. Blackmon

March 6, 2007

STEPHANIE CALETZ, AS SPECIAL ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF CRYSTAL COLON, A MINOR, DECEASED; STEPHANIE CALETZ, INDIVIDUALLY; MARIO CALETZ, INDIVIDUALLY; STEPHANIE CALETZ AND MARIO CALETZ, AS PARENTS AND NEXT FRIENDS OF BRANDON CALETZ, A MINOR; AND STEPHANIE CALETZ AND MARIO CALETZ, AS PARENTS AND NEXT FRIENDS OF JOEL CALETZ, A MINOR, SHANE EVANS AND SHANNON EVANS, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
JESSE BLACKMON; ROBERT LACHOWSKI; TRANSPORT CARRIERS, INC.; AND AMERICAN SHIPPING & PACKING, INC., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Michael T. Mason

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Michael T. Mason, United States Magistrate Judge: This matter is before the Court on defendants Jesse Blackmon ("Blackmon") and Transport Carriers, Inc.'s ("TCI") post-trial motion. Defendants filed a consolidated post-trial motion that includes: a motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b); a motion for a new trial on all issues pursuant to Rule 59(a); a motion for a new trial on damages pursuant to Rule 59(a); a motion for remittitur; and a motion to amend the judgment pursuant to Rule 59(e). For the reasons set forth below, defendants' consolidated post-trial motion is denied in its entirety.

BACKGROUND

This diversity action arises out of a multi-vehicle accident that occurred on July 1, 1999 along the Chicago Skyway northbound off-ramp leading to the Dan Ryan Expressway. Mario Caletz and Stephanie Caletz, individually, and as Special Administrator of the Estate of Crystal Colon, and as parents and next friends of Brandon Caletz and Joel Caletz ("the Caletz plaintiffs"), filed a lawsuit against defendants Blackmon and TCI and defendants Robert Lachowski ("Lachowski") and American Shipping & Packing, Inc. ("ASP"). The Caletz plaintiffs alleged that they were injured and that Crystal Colon died as a result of the negligence and willful and wanton conduct of defendants Blackmon and TCI. They also alleged that they were injured and that Crystal Colon died as a result of the negligence of Lachowski and ASP.

Shane Evans and Shannon Evans ("the Evans plaintiffs") filed a separate lawsuit arising out of the same accident. Shane Evans alleged that he was injured as a result of the negligence of defendants Blackmon, TCI, Lachowski and ASP. Shannon Evans, Shane's wife, brought a loss of consortium claim. The two cases were consolidated and the matter proceeded to a jury trial that commenced on August 21, 2006.

During the trial, a number of witnesses gave varying accounts of how the accident occurred. Based on the testimony at trial, it appears that on July 1, 1999, at approximately 5:30 AM, on the Skyway's northbound off-ramp leading to the Dan Ryan Expressway, Blackmon lost control of the tractor he was driving on behalf of TCI. Blackmon's tractor was not pulling a trailer at the time of the accident. Blackmon testified that where the two-lane off-ramp merged into one lane, he was cut off by a pickup truck. He turned his wheel to the right to avoid hitting the pickup truck and struck the right guardrail. After trying to straighten out, Blackmon said he ended up on the left side of the road with his front end up against the left curb. Other witnesses testified that Blackmon lost control of the tractor, hit the right guardrail and then hit the left guardrail.

Blackmon's tractor ended up perpendicular to the roadway, with his front end flush with left guardrail. Even Blackmon agreed that when he came to rest, the rear of his tractor was obstructing a portion of the lane of traffic.

When Blackmon lost control, Mario Caletz was driving behind him in a minivan. Lachowski, who was driving a furniture truck on behalf of ASP, was behind the Caletz's. Mario Caletz slowed down to avoid hitting Blackmon and pumped his breaks to let people behind him know what was happening. Lachowski applied his breaks but could not slow down in time. He struck the Caletz's and the rear left tires of Blackmon's tractor. At some point, Blackmon was ejected from his tractor onto the grass beside the Dan Ryan Expressway. Blackmon claimed he was ejected when Lachowski struck him. Other witnesses testified that Blackmon was ejected when he struck the left guardrail.

Blackmon testified that as much as 15-20 seconds passed between the time he came to rest and the time Lachowski hit his tractor and the Caletz minivan. Other witnesses, including Bryan Eliott and Mark Lichte, testified that Lachowski hit Blackmon and the Caletz's only 5 or 6 seconds after Blackmon lost control of his tractor.

The accident occurred just before dawn, while it was raining or misty. Visibility was poor and the roadway was wet and slippery. Blackmon hit the right guardrail just after coming out of a curve, where two lanes merged into one. Blackmon was an experienced professional truck driver who testified that he was familiar with the area where the accident occurred. Blackmon also testified that he did not believe that hazardous conditions existed at the time of the accident.

Just prior to the Blackmon/Lachowski/Caletz accident, Shane Evans had been in an unrelated fender bender and he had pulled over to the right shoulder of the off-ramp.

The Evans vehicle was located a few car lengths down the ramp. When Blackmon lost control of his tractor, Shane Evans and the passengers in his car attempted to get out of their vehicle and jump over the right guardrail to safety. However, the impact between Lachowski, Blackmon and the Caletz's pushed all of the vehicles forward. Lachowski sideswiped the left side of Evans' vehicle as he came to a stop. Shane Evans was not able to get out of his car in time. Ultimately, Lachowski's furniture truck pinned Shane Evans between his vehicle and the right guardrail.

As a result of the multi-vehicle accident, Crystal Colon, Stephanie Caletz's nine year-old daughter, died. Brandon Caletz, Joel Caletz and Shane Evans all sustained serious personal injuries. Mario Caletz and Stephanie Caletz sustained less serious personal injuries.

After a seven-day trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of all plaintiffs and against defendants Blackmon, TCI, Lachowski and ASP in the amount of $15,443,093.80. The jury found that Blackmon and TCI were 25 percent at fault and Lachowski and ASP were 75 percent at fault.

ANALYSIS

I. Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

Blackmon and TCI ask this Court to enter judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b). They argue that even assuming there was evidence of Blackmon's negligence, that negligence merely provided a condition for the accident and was not a proximate cause of the accident. Blackmon and TCI also argue that there was no evidence that Blackmon was guilty of willful and wanton misconduct.

A. Legal Standard

While Illinois provides the substantive rules for this diversity case, federal law governs our consideration of a motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b). 3M v. Pribyl, 259 F.3d 587, 595 (7th Cir. 2001); see also, Mayer v. Gary Partners and Co., Ltd., 29 F.3d 330, 335 (7th Cir. 1994). When ruling on a motion for judgment as a matter of law following a jury verdict, the Court does not re-weigh the evidence presented at trial or make credibility determinations. See Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000); see Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). Instead, the Court views the evidence and makes all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion is directed. See Reeves, 530 U.S. at 150-51; Erickson v. Wisconsin Dep't Corrections, 469 F.3d. 600, 601 (7th Cir. 2006). "[T]he question is not whether the jury believed the right people, but only whether it was presented with a legally sufficient amount of evidence from which it could reasonably derive its verdict." Zelinski v. Columbia 300, Inc., 335 F.3d 633, 638 (7th Cir. 2003). In other words, the Court will overturn the jury's verdict only if no reasonable juror could have found in favor of the plaintiffs. See Erickson, 469 F.3d at 601. "This is obviously a difficult standard to meet." Waite v. Board of Trs. of Ill. Cmty. Coll. Dist. No. 508, 408 F.3d 339, 343 (7th Cir. 2005).

B. Proximate Cause

Blackmon and TCI argue that assuming Blackmon lost control of his tractor and negligently blocked a portion of the lane of traffic, that conduct merely created a condition for the accident but was not a proximate cause of the accident. Blackmon and TCI also contend that it was not reasonably foreseeable that Lachowski would drive too fast around a blind curve, particularly when he should have expected stopped cars on the Skyway off-ramp.

Under Illinois law, proximate cause has two requirements: cause in fact and legal cause. See Springfield Bank and Trust v. Galman, 188 Ill. 2d 252, 256, 720 N.E.2d 1068, 1071 (1999); Lee v. Chicago Transit Authority, 152 Ill. 2d 432, 455, 605 N.E.2d 493, 502 (1992); Knauerhaze v. Nelson, 361 Ill. App. 3d 538, 549, 836 N.E.2d 640, 651,(1st Dist. 2005). Cause in fact is proven by showing that the defendant's action was a material element and a substantial factor in bringing about the plaintiff's injury. Galman, 188 Ill. 2d at 257, 720 N.E.2d at 1071. Legal cause "is essentially a question of foreseeability: a negligent act is a proximate cause of an injury if the injury is of a type which a reasonable man would see as a likely result of his conduct." Lee, 152 Ill. 2d at 456, 605 N.E.2d at 503 (quoting Masotti v. Console, 195 Ill. App. 3d 838, 845, 552 N.E.2d 1292, 142 Ill. Dec. 551 (1990)).

In Galman, the Supreme Court noted that "Illinois courts draw a distinction between a condition and a cause." Galman, 188 Ill. 2d at 257. The court further stated:

Indeed if the negligence charged does nothing more than furnish a condition by which the injury is made possible, and that condition causes an injury by the subsequent, independent act of a third person, the creation of the condition is not the proximate cause of the injury. Briske v. Village of Burnham, 379 Ill. 193, 199, 39 N.E.2d 976 (1942); Merlo v. Public Service Co., 381 Ill. 300, 316, 45 N.E.2d 665 (1942); Thompson v. County of Cook, 154 Ill. 2d 374, 383, 609 N.E.2d 290 (1993).

The test that should be applied in all proximate cause cases is whether the first wrongdoer reasonably might have anticipated the intervening efficient cause as a natural and probable result of the first party's own negligence. Merlo, 381 Ill. at 317.

The Supreme Court also noted that the foregoing principles are consistent with the law as set forth in Lee. Galman, 188 Ill. 2d at 258-59, 720 N.E.2d at 1072. In particular, the court stated:

Although Briske, Merlo, and Thompson clearly employ a vocabulary different from that employed in Lee, all of these cases ask the same question: Was the defendant's negligence a material and substantial element in bringing about the injury, and, if so, was the injury of a type that a reasonable person would see as a likely result of his or her conduct? While Lee sets forth this principle in general terms, Briske, Merlo, and Thompson address a particular subset of cases, namely, those in which the plaintiff's injury results not from the defendant's negligence directly but from the subsequent, independent act of a third person. Thus, when Briske, Merlo, and Thompson ask whether the defendant's conduct was a cause of the injury or simply furnished a condition by which the injury was made possible, they are in effect asking whether the defendant's conduct was a material and substantial element in bringing about the injury. Similarly, when Briske, Merlo, and Thompson ask whether the defendant might have reasonably anticipated the intervening efficient cause as a natural and probable result of his or her own negligence, they are in effect asking whether the intervening efficient cause was of a type that a reasonable person would see as a likely result of his or her conduct. Far from conflicting, Briske, Merlo, Thompson, and Lee uniformly embrace the traditional proximate cause test that has governed Illinois for the better part of this century.

Thus, in cases where the subsequent negligent act of a third party is claimed to have directly caused plaintiff's injury, the determination of whether a party that committed some earlier negligent act can be held liable turns on whether that party's conduct "was a material and substantial element in bringing about the injury" and whether "the intervening efficient cause was of a type that a reasonable person would see as a likely result of his or her conduct." Galman, 188 Ill. 2d at 259, 720 N.E.2d at 1072.

With that standard in place, we turn to the facts of this case. The accident occurred on the Skyway off-ramp leading to the Dan Ryan Expressway. Several witnesses testified that it was very early in the morning and that there was poor visibility due to rain or mist. The roadway was wet and the area where Blackmon lost control of his tractor was just after a curve, where two lanes merged into one. The speed limit on the off-ramp was 45 mph. Blackmon testified that he was driving 45 mph (or just under 45 mph) as he proceeded down the ramp. Blackmon lost control of his vehicle, struck the right guardrail, then hit the left guardrail and came to rest perpendicular to the roadway. As a result, his tractor was blocking a portion of the lane of traffic. Blackmon's conduct forced traffic behind him, including the Caletz's and Lachowski, to slow down in an attempt to avoid hitting him. Lachowski applied his breaks but was unable slow down in time. His furniture truck struck the Caletz minivan, Blackmon's tractor and the Evans vehicle. Blackmon testified that 15-20 seconds passed between the time he lost control of his tractor and the time Lachowski struck the Caletz minivan. Mark Lichte and Bryan Elliot testified that it was only 5 or 6 seconds.

Based on these facts, this Court concludes that a reasonable jury could have found that Blackmon's failure to control his tractor and obstruction of the roadway was a material and substantial element in bringing about plaintiffs' injuries. If Blackmon's tractor was not obstructing a portion of the roadway, the Caletz's and Lachowski could have proceeded down the ramp without incident. Indeed, Blackmon's conduct set the stage for the multi-vehicle accident that followed seconds later. See Roeseke v. Pryor, 152 Ill. App. 3d 771, 779, 504 N.E.2d 927, 932 (1st Dist 1987).

Furthermore, a reasonable jury could have found that Lachowski's failure to slow down in time to avoid the accident was foreseeable to Blackmon, or something a reasonable person would see as a likely result of Blackmon's conduct. Because the accident occurred just after a curve, where lanes merged on an off-ramp with a 45 mph speed limit, early in the morning, and in rainy or misty conditions, we cannot conclude, as a matter of law, that Lachowski's conduct was so unforeseeable that Blackmon should be released from all responsibility for plaintiffs' injuries. Roeseke, 152 Ill. App. 3d at 779, 504 N.E.2d at 932 (noting that where defendant's initial collision "set the stage for the multiple-vehicle pileup that followed," and where the accident occurred at night on a highway with a 55 mph speed limit, it was foreseeable that other vehicles would become involved in the mishap); see also, Mack v. Ford Motor Co., 283 Ill. App. 3d 52, 58, 669 N.E.2d 608 (1st Dist. 1996).

Based on the foregoing, this Court finds that there was a sufficient amount of evidence from which the jury could reasonably derive its verdict. Therefore, Blackmon and TCI's motion for judgment as a matter of law with respect to proximate cause is denied.

C. Willful and Wanton Misconduct

Next, Blackmon and TCI argue that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law because there was no evidence that Blackmon was guilty of willful and wanton misconduct. The Illinois Supreme Court has defined willful and wanton misconduct as follows:

A wilful or wanton injury must have been intentional or the act must have been committed under circumstances exhibiting a reckless disregard for the safety of others, such as a failure, after knowledge of impending danger, to exercise ordinary care to prevent it or a failure to discover the danger through recklessness or carelessness when it could have been discovered by the exercise of ordinary care.

American Nat'l Bank & Trust Co. v. City of Chicago, 192 Ill. 2d 274, 285, 735 N.E.2d 551, 557, 248 Ill. Dec. 900 (2000) (quoting Ziarko v. Soo Line R.R. Co., 161 Ill. 2d 267, 273, 641 N.E.2d 402, 405, 204 Ill. Dec. 178 (1994)); see also, Illinois Pattern Jury Instructions, Civil, No. 14.01 (3d ed. 1993) (stating, "when I use the expression 'willful and wanton misconduct,' I mean a course of action which shows actual or deliberate intention to harm or which, if not intentional, shows an utter indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of others.").

In Ziarko, the Illinois Supreme Court described willful and wanton conduct as a hybrid between negligent and intentionally tortious behavior. Ziarko, 161 Ill. 2d at 275, 641 N.E.2d at 406. The court observed that there is a "thin line" between simple negligence and willful and wanton acts. Id. "Under the facts of one case, willful and wanton misconduct may be only degrees more than ordinary negligence, while under the facts of another case, willful and wanton acts may be only degrees less than intentional wrongdoing." Id.

Here, Blackmon lost control of his tractor in an area where he was coming out of a curve and two lanes merged into one. At the time of the accident, he was driving approximately 45 mph. The road was wet and visibility was poor. Blackmon was an experienced professional semi-truck driver who knew how to handle the vehicle he was driving. Blackmon also testified that he was familiar with the area where the accident occurred. Officers Patrick O'Flaherty, Keith Lutz, and Edward Goliak testified that Blackmon was driving too fast for conditions. Despite Blackmon's familiarity with the area, his speed, the driving conditions and the configuration of the roadway, Blackmon testified ...


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